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Why Is Lyme Disease So Hard for Doctors to Diagnose?

Young female doctor examines a young female patient at a doctor's office

One of the most common things all Lyme disease patients share is how difficult it was to get a correct diagnosis. Whether you have health insurance or not, coming down with Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness, can be a painful as well as a frustrating experience.

Unless your physician is knowledgeable or you consult a specialist – debilitating pain and fatigue is often misdiagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome or depression. Meanwhile, others may blame it on dehydration or exhaustion.

Most physicians, especially those who practice in tick “hot-spots” like the northeastern United States, have a good idea what to look out for during spring and summer months,  if they suspect symptoms to be Lyme disease. But, because the disease is less prevalent in Southern California, if a patient hasn’t had a rash and doesn’t remember being bitten, doctors here may be slower to identify ticks as a potential factor and, thereby, delay administering the proper and needed treatment.

Fortunately, according to Anne R. Bass, MD, a rheumatologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, most cases of Lyme disease are caught and treated much earlier and misdiagnosis isn’t very common in the region. However, for medical professionals in Southern California who don’t see many cases, pinpointing this type of infection can be somewhat complicated as symptoms are not always crystal clear.

While many people will develop a bulls-eye rash, which makes the disease fairly easy to diagnose, this telltale symptom is sometimes faint or located on hidden parts of the body, and some people may not even get one at all.

This results in early symptoms of fever or aches and pains, to be wrongly attributed to a virus or the flu. Without seeing a rash, some people might not go to the doctor at all – or it’s possible the doctor might not recognize it. In either case, the delay in giving treatment allows Lyme disease to progress unchecked.

Dr. Bass continued by stating that anyone who has experienced fatigue or joint pain for several months should try to recall when their symptoms began, and whether they spent time in area of the country known for Lyme disease outbreaks. Although no blood test can confirm whether you are currently infected, it can tell if you have been exposed to Lyme bacterium in the past. This occurs by testing antibodies, which develop a few weeks after a person has been infected and remain in the blood forever.

By using these test results and a patient’s current symptoms, doctors can make a diagnosis. But, Dr. Bass is quick to add that even these test results can be complex and confusing, especially for physicians who aren’t used to dealing with Lyme.

Generally, once Lyme disease is correctly diagnosed, two to three weeks of oral antibiotics usually help patients feel better and eliminate all symptoms. However, if it goes untreated for several months, a longer course of drugs and treatment – usually four weeks – is often needed. In more extreme cases, antibiotics may also have to be given through an IV.

About 10 to 20 percent of people with Lyme disease continue to experience symptoms for months or even years after treatment. This condition has sometimes been called chronic Lyme disease, but it is more technically known as post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome. And, a recent Johns Hopkins University study showed that – prolonged Lyme-related illness is more common than was once believed.

Bottom line is this – if you spend any time in areas known for Lyme disease outbreaks or you go camping, hiking, or walking in the California wilderness where deer and other potential tick carriers roam freely, take precautions – but don’t ignore the symptoms if you suddenly start feeling pain and fatigue. Consult your doctor. He may not recognize it at first, but don’t give up until you know what it is.

The Affordable Care Act also referred to as Obamacare has allowed many Americans to get health insurance. Without it coverage getting diagnosed for Lyme disease could be difficult. Don’t let the next open health insurance enrollment period pass you by. Why not get the best health insurance quotes today?

Have you or someone close to you been afflicted with Lyme disease and were misdiagnosed? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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