Lyme disease can affect the body in many ways. The initial infection typically involves symptoms such as a bulls-eye rash at the bite site, fatigue, muscle aches, and fever. Other symptoms that may also occur include headaches, swollen lymph nodes, and joint pain and swelling. These can appear at any time following the transmission of the bacterial infection; however, the typical onset is between one and two weeks after the initial bite.
Some people with Lyme disease may not experience the symptoms early on, or may mistake them for other ailments such as a cold or flu. When this happens, the Lyme disease goes untreated, which can lead to more serious health complications. One such complication is Lyme arthritis. But what is Lyme arthritis, exactly? And what’s the difference between Lyme arthritis and osteoarthritis?
What does Lyme arthritis look like?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly one in four people with Lyme disease will develop Lyme arthritis. (These numbers aren’t conclusive, however, as not all cases of Lyme disease are reported to the CDC.)
Lyme arthritis symptoms typically occur in the later stages of the disease and consist of joint pain and swelling, much like other arthritic conditions. The swelling in the joints will likely look worse than it is, in the sense that it appears excruciatingly painful but presents with only a moderate amount of pain, especially during movement.
The joints that are typically affected include the knees, shoulder joints, ankles, elbows, jaw joints, wrists, and hips. The affected joint may also feel warm when touched.
What does osteoarthritis look like?
Osteoarthritis (OA) is a long-lasting/chronic condition that affects the health of the joints. OA occurs when cartilage in the joints begins to break down, causing the bones to rub together. When this happens, symptoms such as pain, stiffness, and inflammation can result. As the disease progresses, the joint pain becomes more severe and swelling occurs.
The condition tends to worsen consistently because it is a type of age-related disease and the degeneration of cartilage continues over time. The joints that are most affected by OA include the hands, fingertips, knees, hips, or spine at the neck or lower back. In more severe cases, when the disease has progressed, movement of the joint can be difficult and patients may experience joint instability, joint deformities, muscle weakness, and bone spurs.
Is osteoarthritis different from Lyme arthritis?
Although both Lyme arthritis and osteoarthritis affect the joints, there are some stark differences between the two conditions. The first is the cause. While osteoarthritis is caused by joint damage that worsens over time, Lyme arthritis is caused by the borrelia bacteria. The symptoms of the two conditions are similar in nature; however, they may not affect the body in the same way. For example, in Lyme arthritis, the joints that experience arthritic symptoms are only on one side of the body. In osteoarthritis, unilateral joint degradation can occur, but 80% of cases are bilateral, meaning both sides are affected in the same way.
The specific joints that experience the damage can also be the same; however, Lyme disease typically attacks large joints, whereas osteoarthritis is more likely to develop in smaller joints. It’s also worth noting that although osteoarthritis doesn’t always develop in all joints, it can – in contrast with Lyme arthritis, which tends to only occur in a few select joints.
The main commonality between Lyme disease and osteoarthritis is pain that comes and goes, although some cases of osteoarthritis may cause constant pain that doesn’t get better without the use of pain medications. Both conditions can also lead to swelling.
Does Lyme disease cause osteoarthritis?
When the bacteria that causes Lyme disease does make its way into the joints, it causes inflammation. This inflammation then leads to Lyme arthritis symptoms. If the condition remains untreated due to a lack of accurate diagnosis, over time, that inflammation can damage the cartilage within the joints. Even after Lyme disease is treated, the permanent damage to the cartilage left by the bacteria cannot be restored. Since osteoarthritis occurs because of joint damage, it can lead to the development of osteoarthritis over time.
It can be difficult to diagnose Lyme disease, especially in the early stages, because of how well it mimics other conditions. What makes it even harder is the fact that most people are unsuspecting of Lyme disease if they fall ill unless they’ve recently been bitten by a tick and are aware of the risks associated with it.
The good news is that if Lyme disease is caught early, it can be treated with antibiotics. This early treatment is vital to ensuring that the bacteria doesn’t make its way through the body and into other areas where it can cause permanent damage. To ensure that Lyme disease doesn’t cause damage to joint cartilage and increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis, early detection is crucial.