Lyme disease is a tricky bacterial infection. While it can be treated using antibiotics, many people who contract it go on to develop symptoms long after treatment. This is referred to as post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS). This chronic version of Lyme can affect up to 20% of individuals who get the disease. For those who develop PTLDS, chronic symptoms include pain, fatigue, and cognitive impairment.
Many other health disorders present similarly to chronic Lyme disease. The symptoms are often so similar that Lyme disease has earned the nickname “the great imitator.” New research has begun to shed light on how Lyme disease affects the body, with some finding that there may be more of a connection between Lyme disease and other chronic diseases than once thought. One of those diseases is fibromyalgia. But what is fibromyalgia, exactly? And how is it connected to Lyme disease?
What is fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is, first and foremost, a chronic pain disorder. The pain that occurs in people with the condition is generally whole-body or widespread pain. Roughly 2% of the American adult population struggles with fibromyalgia daily.
While research is yet to pin down an exact cause of the condition, how it develops has to do with changes in brain chemicals. When levels of brain chemicals become abnormal, they negatively affect how the central nervous system carries pain signals throughout the body. It’s thought that the pain signaling is askew, causing pain to develop where it shouldn’t.
Even though the cause of fibromyalgia is not yet known, some risk factors are associated with the disease’s development. Age is a risk factor, and other associated conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, are also connected to the onset of fibromyalgia.
Lyme disease vs. fibromyalgia symptoms
The symptoms of fibromyalgia vary, but always include chronic pain. People with the condition may also experience stiffness that affects the entire body; issues with cognitive functions such as memory, thinking, and concentration; and headaches.
Other possible symptoms that people with fibromyalgia can develop include:
- Tiredness and fatigue
- Mood disorders such as depression and anxiety
- Sleep issues
- Feelings of tingling or numbness in the extremities, specifically the hands and feet
- Disorders of the jaw that present with pain in the face or jaw
- Digestive issues such as bloating, constipation, or abdominal pain
- New onset of irritable bowel syndrome
Since many of these symptoms can develop in several conditions, fibromyalgia can sometimes appear like other diseases, such as Lyme disease. The symptoms that can occur in people with chronic Lyme disease include:
- Chronic pain
- Cognitive issues that affect memory and thinking
- Difficulty sleeping or having restless sleep
- Joint and muscle pain
- Swelling in the joints
Since Lyme disease and fibromyalgia have several overlapping symptoms, this could present an issue when determining between the two. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are connected.
Is there a link between fibromyalgia and Lyme disease?
According to some research, the link between fibromyalgia and Lyme disease may simply be their shared symptoms. It’s thought that Lyme disease may sometimes be incorrectly diagnosed in patients with fibromyalgia, and these patients may be given antibiotics. Because antibiotics do not treat fibromyalgia, they do nothing to help those who have not actually contracted the bacterial infection.
However, other studies have assessed fibromyalgia risk when associated with Lyme disease. The results show that while the two conditions aren’t always related, some people may have fibromyalgia triggered by Lyme disease.
Are you at a greater risk of fibromyalgia after Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is not considered an official fibromyalgia trigger. However, several studies have been performed in the last three decades that state otherwise. One study done in 2015 monitored patients with confirmed cases of Lyme disease to assess the long-term repercussions of the disease following treatment. The study showed a 1% rate of fibromyalgia following a Lyme disease infection, typically following two or more Lyme infections.
Another study, published in 1992, found a far higher incidence rate of fibromyalgia symptoms in people with treated Lyme disease: 14 out of the 15 patients in the study had persistent fibromyalgia symptoms after being treated for Lyme disease.
More recent research has found that Lyme disease can trigger fibromyalgia in a small number of people. The caveat is that people who develop fibromyalgia after treating Lyme disease do so when there is no active bacteria or infection in their body. Because of that, only a few people with fibromyalgia may have had it triggered by previous infection with Lyme disease.
To sum up: Lyme disease and fibromyalgia definitely have similar symptoms. There’s some evidence to support that Lyme disease can trigger fibromyalgia, but not enough cases have been found to make it an official risk factor.