The Bigger Picture: A Two-Part Series on Taking Care of Our Overall Health Within the Context of Chronic Lyme
When you have a serious case of tick borne disease, it’s natural to get completely immersed in the world of that illness. You are reminded of your aches, pains, and limitations the moment you wake up (provided you ever got to sleep; some patients get the reminder twenty-four hours a day). At the most critical lows, it’s impossible to think of anything else. When it’s a fight to lift your head off the pillow, take a shower, or swallow medication, you have no energy to consider movies or books or current events or what might be happening at work.
Or what else might be happening in your body.
Tick borne diseases are so all-encompassing that they can seemingly explain every symptom we feel. And many, if not all, of these symptoms are Lyme related. Lyme is called The Great Imitator because it manifests in such a variety of ways that it is often mistaken for other syndromes such as Chronic Fatigue, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, and Multiple Sclerosis. Once an accurate tick borne disease diagnosis is made, patients know that their joint swelling is a result of spirochetes; that their hypoglycemia and nightsweats are caused by babesia; and that their stretch marks and spiked fevers are due to bartonella.
The problem is when our typical symptoms start to present atypically. Then we have to wonder, is this just Lyme doing something new, or is it something else entirely? If a Lyme patient usually has achiness in his elbows, sudden pain in his knee could easily be explained away by spirochetes moving to that joint. If a Lyme patient has daily headaches, and one day that headache becomes a migraine, she’s going to assume that the increased pain is caused by a flare up of her Lyme.
Tick borne disease patients generally know their bodies, and their symptoms, so well that we can self-diagnose when our symptoms get a little wonky. We keep fastidious logs of our ailments, and if we can’t remember if we’ve experienced something before, we can go back and check. Often, we have. Often, new or increased aches and pains are associated with our Lyme, and we can’t worry over every single one, or we’d make ourselves crazier than we already feel.
The question becomes, when is something not Lyme? With a disease that affects virtually every system of the body, from the heart to the gastrointestinal tract to the central nervous system, is there any symptom that doesn’t fall under Lyme?
The answer is yes.
Not everything is Lyme related. It’s hard to believe that, or even consider it, when Lyme and its symptoms have you pinned to the bed. But falling into that kind of tunnel vision can be more dangerous than Lyme itself.
I’m reminded of a commercial that ran a few years back, in which a women had tragically just lost her sister. The women tells us that the sister, who had a family history of breast cancer, did monthly self breast exams and got regular mammograms. How then, the viewer wonders, could this woman have died of breast cancer?
She didn’t. She had heart disease.
When we are totally focused on our main health event, we can miss a silent circus going on under the surface. Because Lyme patients are so sick, it’s easy for us to forego routine procedures such as mammograms, prostate exams, and dental cleanings. I’ve certainly said, “Oh, I’ll deal with that when I’m healthier” or “Eh, that’s just a checkup; it can wait. I have to focus on my acute illness.”
The problem is, unless Lyme is diagnosed and treated right away, it rarely is acute. When we suffer from long term Lyme or any other chronic illness, we can’t let the rest of our health fall by the wayside. We need our foundational health more than ever, so that we can combat our chronic illnesses from the strongest possible baseline. And that means getting annual checkups, going in for dental cleanings, and calling the doctor when new, atypical symptoms pop up and persist. It means taking care of “smaller” health problems when they arise.
This is a case of do as I say, not as I do (or did). When I was in college, my dentist recommended I get my wisdom teeth removed. “They’re not impacted,” he said, “so it would just be a preventative measure.” He cautioned that if I didn’t get them out, the teeth might give me trouble down the line. At the time, I was facing two other surgeries and dealing with the symptoms of undiagnosed Lyme; who had time to think about “down the line”?
Fifteen years down the line, I got pericornitis. One wisdom tooth got infected, and another isn’t far behind. This past February, the teeth had to come out. The surgery was no longer elective. Suddenly I was faced with scary questions: how would the extraction affect my Lyme, and vice-versa? Read on next week for the answers, and for more on the relationship between Lyme and other health issues.