Untreated Lyme disease rarely results in death but can cause a number of different complications, including adverse pregnancy outcomes, persistent chronic health issues, significant neurological damage, and a reduction in the quality of life for patients in terms of work, family, and emotional well-being. Lyme disease cure is possible in most cases (around 95%) when treated early and appropriately, but the long-term ramifications of the untreated condition can be profound.
Some Lyme disease advocates have connected the condition to autism, multiple sclerosis (MS), chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS or myalgic encephalomyelitis [ME]), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and other illnesses.
Patients who are left untreated for the longest period are those most at risk of developing persistent symptoms of Lyme disease. Increased awareness of the early symptoms of Lyme disease, and the recognition of Lyme-endemic areas has had some success in reducing the rates of late-stage Lyme disease. Even with treatment in the late stage of the disease only 5% of patients are considered to have continuing problems associated with the infection.
Early infection that is untreated will likely disseminate and cause problems extending beyond the initial skin reaction, erythema migrans, that can occur around the bite. Erythema migrans itself may appear at a site far from the original bite as untreated Lyme disease bacterial infection spreads through the skin. Other symptoms of disseminated Lyme disease include Lyme arthritis, fatigue, neuropathy (numbness and tingling, particularly in the hands, feet, arms, or legs), cognitive and mood irregularities, atrioventricular block and complications of the heart, lungs, and nervous system, and, in rare cases, frank psychosis which may be misdiagnosed as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
Untreated Lyme Disease Statistics
Untreated Lyme disease results in joint pain in around 60% of patients in North America, rising to 80% where the condition remains untreated after 2yrs or more. Around 10-20% develop neurological issues or cardiac (heart) problems, with the figure thought to be higher for European cases of Lyme disease due to the different bacterial strains of Borrelia responsible for Lyme disease there. Some symptoms of untreated Lyme disease include headaches, peripheral neuropathy and possible central nervous system dysfunction, facial paralysis (Bell’s palsy), along with heart palpitations and atrioventricular block, memory problems, depression, forgetfulness (and amnesia), difficulty concentrating, and numbness or tingling in the extremities. Untreated Lyme disease may also lead to problems with an awkward gait (walking), bladder function, vertigo, and back pain.
In extreme cases of untreated Lyme disease a patient may develop extensive lesions in the brain and central nervous system which are untreatable and cause permanent paraplegia. Polyneuropathy can occur, as can visual disturbances, inflammation of the heart, chronic erosive synovitis resulting in Lyme disease joint pain, and profound fatigue from Lyme encephalopathy. The connection between untreated Lyme disease, depression, and fibromyalgia is not fully understood but it is not thought that the incidence is higher in patients with Lyme disease than in the general population. Where depression and/or fibromyalgia do co-exist with Lyme disease, patients may have had treatment delayed, or could be more vulnerable to the effects of infection. Symptoms that arise following infection may be due to misdiagnosis or the emotional distress a patient has suffered during a prolonged, and often costly, diagnostic process.
Untreated Lyme Disease and Chronic Illness
Anyone suffering from a chronic illness, or who believes that their symptoms are due to a chronic incurable disease is at risk of symptoms such as fatigue and depression which is just one of the reasons why misdiagnosis of a Lyme disease infection as MS or other illness can have such a profound effect on the patient. Patients with untreated Lyme disease are thought to have a higher rate of anxiety than the general population however, and anecdotal reports of panic attacks, delusional behavior, depersonalization or derealization syndrome may occur. Indeed, the so-called ‘Lyme disease defence’ has featured in a handful of court cases including two murder trials as Lyme disease sufferers have tried to blame their infection for delusional and aggressive behaviors.
Another feature of untreated Lyme disease that occurs in European patient populations is a chronic skin condition called acrodermatitis chronica atrophicans. This skin disease is primarily a feature of untreated Lyme disease in the elderly and results in a purple-bluish discoloration of the skin along with the loss of hair. Common sites are the backs of the hands or the tops of the feet spreading up to the shins. The skin becomes very thin and wrinkly, before turning extremely dry and hairless if the condition remains untreated. The myriad symptoms, with periods of remittance and relapse, make it difficult to recognize some cases of untreated Lyme disease and patients may only discover the cause of such symptoms after a prolonged diagnostic process.
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