The symptoms of amyotrophic laterals sclerosis (ALS) look similar to the symptoms of nearly four dozen other diseases, including Lyme disease. That’s partly why some people believe there may be a connection between Lyme disease and ALS. And while there is no proven connection between these separate conditions, there are more than a few reasons why one might be misdiagnosed as the other.
ALS and Lyme Disease
ALS is a degenerative brain disease that gradually causes muscular atrophy. As communication between the body and brain breaks down, voluntary movements become more difficult until even breathing independently is no longer possible. ALS affects nearly 20,000 Americans at any given time, usually striking between the ages of 40 and 70. Nine out of ten cases of ALS have no known cause, with the remaining 10% caused by genetics.
By contrast, Lyme disease is an infection caused by bacteria. Nearly all cases are transmitted through the painless bite of a tick. Lyme disease can also be transmitted through pregnancy, and possibly even via human-to-human transmission. The CDC estimates that 300,000 people are diagnosed annually in the US alone, making Lyme disease six times as common as AIDS. Nearly 95% of those cases occur along the east coast, but there are small numbers of cases scattered throughout various regions of the United States.
Similarities and Differences
So, what do these conditions have in common? The truth is, not very much! In 1990, one small study found a connection between ALS and the presence of antibodies for Lyme disease. Some people have incorrectly taken this data to mean that if you select 10 ALS patients at random, nine would have some indication of Lyme in their blood – what appears to be a damning connection.
However, this myth is largely the result of a mistaken understanding about the tests for Lyme disease. Lyme disease is diagnosed with blood tests, but these tests are unreliable and tend to indicate past exposure rather than active disease. Only a patient’s symptoms can tell the full story.
Lyme Disease and ALS Symptoms
Lyme disease typically presents with a warm, painless rash. In the weeks after infection, nerve pain, shortness of breath, numbness in the hands, short-term memory issues, joint pain, neck stiffness, and facial twitching or paralysis may occur. Lyme patients may also feel a pattern of muscle weakness that’s diagnostically similar to ALS.
By contrast, the early symptoms of ALS include slurred speech, fatigue, tripping or dropping things, uncontrollable laughing or crying, and muscle twitching or cramps. To a physician, these symptoms look like a slew of treatable diseases, including Lyme disease. And because there’s no definitive test for ALS, doctors have to run an array of diagnostics to rule out dozens of other possibilities before diagnosing ALS by exclusion.
Treatment for Lyme Disease & ALS
There’s no cure for ALS, so treatment is mostly about learning to cope with symptoms and slowing the disease’s progression. This is typically a combination of medications and physical therapy. On the other hand, Lyme disease is usually trivial to cure with antibiotics, though delayed treatment can cause complications.
In conclusion, it’s possible for a person to have ALS and Lyme disease at the same time. When combined, these two conditions would help mask one another – ensuring that diagnosis would be very difficult. But comorbidity between ALS and Lyme disease is not common. There’s no reason for people with Lyme disease to worry about contracting ALS, and there’s no reason for patients of ALS to get regular screenings for Lyme. As far as modern medical research is concerned, there are only superficial connections between the two.