Lyme disease and multiple sclerosis are sometimes so similar in presentation that misdiagnosis and years of consequent suffering are not unheard of. This is frightening as both diseases have the capacity to cause extensive damage if misdiagnosed for years. For both diseases, the best chance for patients lies in correct and early diagnosis and treatment.
MS, Lyme Disease and the Possibility of Misdiagnosis
The primary overlap between Lyme disease and multiple sclerosis occurs in the area of symptoms. In both diseases, patients can present with optic neuritis, weakness, fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, depression and abnormal sensations associated with nervous system problems (e.g. prickling, burning, stabbing pains, and itching). Additionally, MRI scans can show similar results for Lyme disease and multiple sclerosis patients, namely, the appearance of lesions in the white matter of the central nervous system. Cerebrospinal fluid analyses can be equally misleading. To add to this array of problems, tests for the bacteria that cause Lyme disease are notorious for giving false negative results.
Because of this overlap between the two diseases, it is irresponsible and potentially dangerous for doctors to make diagnoses based on limited information. A responsible doctor will examine the patient fully and conduct medical tests so that, at the end of the day, the diagnosis will be based on the patient’s medical history, a clinical examination and various tests. Doctors who take the time to do all of these will find that it is often possible to distinguish between Lyme disease and multiple sclerosis. For instance, they will observe that MS patients’ neurological symptoms are primarily concentrated in the central nervous system while those of Lyme disease patients are spread out in both the CNS and peripheral nervous system. MS also tends to follow a relapsing-remitting course (although that is not always true) while Lyme disease tends to follow a progressive course (although that is not always true). Additionally, Lyme disease patients are likely to have additional symptoms that are not typical to MS, e.g. generalized joint pains.
Perhaps the most telling distinction between multiple sclerosis and Lyme disease is evident upon treatment. Patients with Lyme disease improve when put on appropriate antibiotic treatment. Antibiotics do nothing to treat MS. Those suffering from MS improve when put on other forms of medication, including steroids. These MS treatments do nothing to help Lyme disease patients, and may, in fact, make them worse.
Multiple Sclerosis-Lyme Disease Concurrence
It is entirely possible for patients to suffer from Lyme disease and multiple sclerosis at the same time. This is likely to be confusing to diagnose. With time, as more doctors identify this Lyme disease-multiple sclerosis concurrence and write about it, it will become routine for doctors to look out for such complications.