The toll Lyme takes on the body is hard to quantify. The chronic form of the disease affects all patients differently, often taking a long time to fully manifest. It is a particularly insidious disease in the pantheon of human afflictions, and unfortunately, one that we still know very little about. We know how it’s contracted: through ticks, which transfer the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria as they bite their human hosts. We also know that Lyme is very curable in its acute stage. The problems start when we start getting into the chronic stage. Many doctors and medical professionals are not up to speed with chronic Lyme, which is not even viewed as a legitimate disease by many official bodies. Chronic Lyme disease can affect many different parts of a patient’s body. One of the less explored areas is the link between Lyme disease and vision.
So can Lyme disease damage your vision? It seems like a far-reaching prospect, but in fact, Lyme can extend its reach into many surprising areas. Before we take a closer look at the link between the two, let’s examine what we actually mean when we talk about Lyme disease. Acute Lyme refers to the initial stage of the disorder. This occurs very soon after the initial infection, lasting for a few weeks to a couple of months. The symptoms are flu-like, and part of the problem with Lyme is that it’s often ignored in this crucial early window. If the tick bite is not noticed, it’s highly likely the patient will dismiss their symptoms as a bout of flu. A tell-tale sign is a bullseye rash, which occurs in a high number of cases, but this too can easily be missed. The initial symptoms are not even particularly severe, and recede after a time, giving the illusion of recovery.
In fact, the Lyme bacteria is simply adapting to the body – overcoming the initial immune response that caused the flu symptoms in the first place. At this point, the chance for a relatively clean recovery via antibiotics is gone. The Borrelia bacteria becomes entrenched within the system, creating havoc all over the body. A number of these symptoms will be patient-specific; if it permeates the blood-brain barrier, for example, then a number of cognitive symptoms can develop. Unfortunately, these are also extremely generalized, and are the reason Lyme has been bestowed with the nickname “The Great Imitator”. Misdiagnosis is one of the biggest hurdles facing both doctors and patients alike, as Lyme is routinely mistaken for a number of other prominent diseases, such as MS and fibromyalgia.
Compounding the issue is the fact that not all symptoms are caused by the infection. Over time, the body’s immune response will flare up, faced with a pathogen it can’t quite seem to eradicate. The result is often constant inflammation around the joints, which impedes movement and causes pain and chronic fatigue. The key to treating chronic Lyme involves tackling both the infection and inflammation issues simultaneously, although this is easier said than done. In addition, any co-infections which might have been caught at the same time as Lyme have to be addressed in tandem with the overriding Borrelia infection. All this makes chronic Lyme very difficult to treat; and that’s before you add in the lack of wider knowledge we have about the condition.
So now, with the disease defined, let’s look at how it can affect your vision. Can Lyme disease cause blurred vision? Yes, it can – but this is a surface effect of a deeper-rooted problem. Essentially, humans have two vision systems that work in tandem with each other. The first is a conscious one, where we can look at something, take it in, and process its meaning (or lack thereof) in our brain. The second is a more primal, spatial awareness that helps us gauge our surroundings and maintain posture and balance as we adapt to them. This spatial process is the one that’s at risk if Lyme reaches the brain (a condition called neuroborreliosis). The symptoms might be similar to a concussion or a stroke. When spatial vision is compromised, it leaves the higher, conscious vision isolated and vulnerable. This is what results in eye strain, blurred vision, headaches, visual fatigue, or difficulty focusing.
Unfortunately, like many other symptoms of this insidious disease, these manifestations are very generalized and could be indicative of a number of other conditions. If a patient was to visit an optometrist about these pervasive symptoms, it’s highly unlikely they would consider Lyme disease at all. They would more likely turn to more traditional vision therapy, which might only serve to strain the eye further and ignore the underlying problem. This aspect of the disease is what makes Lyme so dangerous, and why it can persist in patients for many years. If you feel you might have Lyme, the most important thing to do is to track down a Lyme-literate doctor. This is a vital first step, as it means you can definitively rule out (or rule in) Lyme disease. Once you know you definitely have the disorder, you can approach a treatment plan with more clarity.