Lyme disease, transmitted by a bite from a tick infected by the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, had long been considered easy to treat, usually requiring a single doctor’s visit and a few weeks of antibiotics for most people.
But new research from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggests that a prolonged illness associated with the disease in some patients is more widespread and serious than previously understood. With an estimated 240,000 to 440,000 new cases of the tick-borne illness diagnosed every year, the researchers found that Lyme disease costs the U.S. health care system between $712 million and $1.3 billion a year — or nearly $3,000 per patient on average — in return doctor visits and testing, likely to investigate the cause of some patients’ lingering symptoms of fatigue, musculoskeletal pain and memory problems. These visits come after patients have finished their original course of antibiotics.
Some doctors call those persistent symptoms post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS); others call it chronic Lyme disease. Still others attribute the complaints of fatigue, headaches and memory problems to the hum of daily life, the aches and pains that come with aging. At the core of the controversy is whether PTLDS can be a severe and chronic condition that requires more than reassurance and symptomatic therapy. While a blood test can confirm Lyme disease, there is no definitive test for PTLDS and there are no approved or proven treatments. It’s a controversial topic in medicine, the Johns Hopkins researchers say.