Lyme disease used to be regarded as a simple tick-borne illness. But with more and more cases and the long-term effects of Lyme disease becoming more widely known, it’s becoming clear that Lyme disease is a lot more severe than previously thought. While the infection starts with simple flu-like symptoms, it can quickly progress and cause issues with joint, heart, and brain health. But can a tick cause neurological problems, and how does Lyme disease affect the brain? Let’s investigate.
What does a tick do to your brain?
There are many types of tick-borne illnesses, each with its own symptoms and consequences. With Lyme disease, the epidemic of tick-borne illnesses, the symptoms can be widespread and nonspecific. The bacteria that cause the infection can pass through the blood–brain barrier – a collection of tissues and blood vessels tightly wound to create a wall to keep pathogens and other harmful substances from entering the brain.
Because of the bacteria’s ability to break through this forcefield, it can set up shop in the brain and damage brain cells and nerves, causing various symptoms stemming from issues with brain health and the central and peripheral nervous systems.
Can ticks cause brain damage?
As mentioned above, specific tick-borne illnesses can break through the wall that protects the brain from infections. Because of this, brain damage can ensue. Tick-borne encephalitis is one of the worst brain health issues caused by tick-borne conditions.
What is the tick-borne encephalitis virus?
Tick-borne encephalitis (often referred to as TBE) is a viral infection passed from ticks to humans through a tick bite or through the consumption of unpasteurized milk from an infected animal, such as goats or cows. While North America doesn’t see as many cases as Europe or Asia, TBE can occur anywhere infected ticks live.
The brain infection following a tick bite develops because of a virus known as the Flavivirus genus, belonging to the Flaviviridae family of viruses. There are three sub-types of this virus:
- European: Found in Europe and transmitted by Ixodes Ricinus ticks
- Far Eastern: Found in far-eastern Russia and forested areas of Japan and China and transmitted by I. persulcatus
- Siberian: Transmitted by I. persulcatus and found in the Urals region, Siberia, and far-eastern Russia, as well as north-eastern Europe
Because of where infected ticks live, TBE can be highly localized in Europe, Russia, Japan, China, and Siberia.
What is neurologic Lyme disease?
Neurologic Lyme disease is a type of Lyme disease infection that primarily affects the neurological system, namely the peripheral or central nervous systems. As mentioned above, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease can make its way through the blood–brain barrier. When it does, it can cause damage to nerves within the nervous system. This damage leads to serious neurological symptoms.
There are three main parts of the system mainly affected by Lyme disease:
- Cranial nerve
- Peripheral nerve
- Central nervous system
Since these nerves and systems play a role in various bodily functions, both conscious and subconscious, when they become damaged, there will be different symptoms associated with each one.
What are Lyme disease neuropathy symptoms?
The symptoms that develop in neurological Lyme disease typically develop during a stage known as early disseminated Lyme disease. This stage occurs when the bacteria begin to spread throughout the body from their initial entry point. This can take a few weeks or a few months to appear.
When the brain becomes affected by early disseminated Lyme disease, symptoms can include:
- Facial palsy/paralysis of the facial muscles that lead to a drooping appearance
- Visual changes and disturbances
Other symptoms may also depend on what part of the brain or nervous system is involved. For example, cranial nerve involvement is known to cause facial palsy. In contrast, when the peripheral nerve is affected, a person may experience symptoms of radiculoneuropathy, such as tingling sensations, shooting pains, or weakness in the arms and legs.
When the central nervous system is the bacteria’s target, symptoms of Lyme meningitis will begin to develop and include:
- Stiff neck
- Increased sensitivity to light
About 16 people out of every 100 who document their Lyme disease case with the CDC are said to develop neurological symptoms of infection.
How is neurological Lyme disease diagnosed?
Because the symptoms that develop in Lyme neuropathy are like many other health disorders, an extensive diagnostic process may be needed. Medical providers may want to rule out conditions before treating a person for Lyme disease, or they may not even suspect Lyme disease if a person is unaware that they’ve been bitten by an infected tick.
When Lyme disease is suspected, there are typically two ways doctors investigate. They will first perform two-step serologic testing, which are blood tests used to determine if someone has an active infection of Lyme disease. Next they will conduct cerebral spinal fluid analysis, which involves taking a sample of cerebral spinal fluid to test for infection. Testing the spinal fluid can be used to rule out any other illnesses.
What does Lyme disease neuropathy treatment involve?
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection, so it is treated using antibiotics. For people with neurological symptoms, oral or intravenous antibiotics will be used depending on how severe the symptoms are. While many people treated with antibiotics fully recover, if the infection is left untreated for too long, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease can do irreparable damage to the nervous system.
The neurological symptoms of Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections can be scary, debilitating, and sometimes severe. Preventing tick bites is the best way to ensure you never have to deal with neurological tick-borne illnesses. You can do this by wearing loose and light-colored clothing while in wooded areas, always checking yourself for ticks after a day spent in nature, and removing ticks promptly and properly if you are bitten.