Lyme Disease, CLD, and Medical Marijuana
What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease, sometimes misspelled as lime disease, is a bacterial infection spread to humans via tick bites. Lyme disease was recognized in 1975, when an abnormally large amount of children around the town of Lyme, Connecticut, in the United States, and two other nearby towns, were diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
Lyme borreliosis—so named after the borrelia bacterium—is commonly transmitted to ticks through woodland mammals, such as deer and mice and other small rodents, which ticks feed upon, and then subsequently pass the borrelia bacteria onto humans when bitten.
If treated quickly and properly, Lyme disease is curable; although the longer the treatment (with antibiotics) is delayed, the more prolonged the healing process will be, and the harder it is to completely eradicate the infection.
How is Lyme disease contracted?
People infected with Lyme disease usually contract it from immature, or the nymphal, form of the tick. Since the nymphal tick is so small—just about the size of a poppy seed—many people remain unaware of the fact that they have been bitten at all, especially since the bite itself is painless.
Not to make readers of this article more paranoid (the aim is “reasonably wary”), but Lyme disease is everywhere. Its presence has been documented on all continents save for Antarctica. In Canada, Lyme disease is actually on the rise—and the best way to protect yourself and your family from contracting Lyme disease is by becoming informed (i.e. knowing Lyme disease symptoms, how to identify ticks that carry the disease, and common habits or activities that increase risk of contracting the disease).
Once you have this information, you can take the practical preventative measures to keep yourself healthy, safe and Lyme disease-free.
The tick species which most commonly carry the borrelia bacterium causing Lyme disease are deer ticks (also called ‘dog’ or ‘cattle’ ticks) and Western black-legged ticks. The Ixodes angustus tick also has, in some cases, been shown to transmit the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. To be safe, if you suspect that you have been bitten by any of these ticks, it is always best to see a doctor and seek treatment as soon as possible.
Lyme Disease in stages
There are three stages of Lymes disease, which can be hard to distinguish from each other since the speed of the disease’s progression and manifestation of the symptoms can vary from person to person. At any stage of Lyme disease, a person’s prognosis can significantly worsen—becoming more difficult to treat—if the symptoms of Lyme disease are not recognized early on. The three stages of Lyme disease are as follows:
Stage 1 is the early infection stage of the disease; this occurs within the first few days of the infection. During Stage 2 the infection will spread, possibly over a period of days, but as long as weeks after the initial infection. Finally, Stage 3 of Lyme disease is when the infected person develops what is called Chronic Lyme disease, which develops in the days to weeks after the infection if it is not properly treated, or treated at all, in the subsequent months (and even years) post-infection.
Stage 1 is the point at which Lyme disease is most treatable. Over time, treatment becomes harder to handle and diagnosis will be trickier, since the symptoms of Lyme disease can be confused with those symptoms of other infectious diseases or ailments. Some of the most ambiguous symptoms of Lyme disease as it progresses further from Stage 1 are common flu-like symptoms and those of neurological diseases—even including paralysis.
Symptoms of Lyme disease
The sooner the detection and diagnosis of Lyme disease, the sooner a treatment regiment can begin to kill off the bacteria causing the disease.
Symptoms and their onset, however, vary between people who contract the disease (with more than 100 recognized Lyme disease symptoms). So be aware of the symptoms and extra vigilant if you believe you or a family member—based on geography, outdoor activities, routines or a recent tick bite—might be at higher risk.
The early flu-like symptoms of Lyme disease can consist of high fever, nausea, muscle ache and soreness, jaw pain, a sore throat, congestion, stiff neck, headache and sensitivity to light.
A Lyme disease rash that looks like a “bull’s eye” on the skin can sometimes develop around the site of the infection, usually three to 30 days after infection, and is generally painless, however not all cases of Lyme disease when contracted occur with a rash. About 50 percent of serologically (by a blood test) proven cases of Lyme disease, occur with the Lyme disease rash or “bull’s eye” pattern. But many regions, particularly in Canada, do not have access to blood tests; and even the more accurate alternative testing methods can return false positive results.
Lyme disease treatment
If you think you have lymes disease (really spelled in the singular, as “Lyme”), then you will want to confirm diagnosis by visiting a doctor, then seeking out treatment as quickly as possible. When identified and treated early on, Lyme disease is one of the most treatable diseases, like most bacterial infections, and receives an extended round of antibiotics.
Recommended early stage treatments, for when the infection is still localized, are oral administration of doxycycline antibiotics (and alternatively amoxicillin).
Diagnosis and treatment of Chronic Lyme Disease (CLD)
Unfortunately, some people infected don’t present with the “bull’s eye” Lyme disease rash, or they end up confusing their own symptoms for those of another illness. This starts a downwardly spiralling process of seemingly “random,” or a hodgepodge, of symptoms consistent with other bacterial and viral infections, as well as autoimmune disorders: like Multiple Sclerosis, lupus, arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and even more insidious neurological diseases Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Within Canada, unfortunately, there is no blood culture test for Lyme disease commercially available. Some doctors accept the bull’s eye Lyme disease rash as basis for a positive diagnosis, while others require lab testing and results—and will not begin any treatment regiment until confirmation from laboratories.
The most common antibody tests for Lyme disease are the ELISA test and Western blot test. Antibodies are compounds produced by the immune system to combat infection. They are specific to the pathogen inside the body, attacking the indigenous cells, and when they are tested for, can indicate the presence of a particular type of bacteria. The Western blot test is known to be more accurate than the Elisa test.
Undiagnosed and untreated, Lyme disease can lead to Chronic Lyme Disease (CLD), which develops over time. Other bacteria transmitted by ticks—ehrlichia, bartonella, babesia—can aggravate infection and deteriorate other bodily systems (for example, the respiratory, vascular, and nervous systems), ultimately leading to “Multiple Systemic Infectious Disease Syndrome” (MSIDS).
Treatment for Chronic Lyme Disease and MSIDS is more long-term antibiotics, sometimes switching from oral to IV administration of the drugs. Long-term treatment regiments need to be rotated for effectiveness however, the concern being that the surviving bacteria, entrenched within the body, can eventually build up their resistance to the antibiotic of choice.
Some practicing medical physicians, including those published in peer-reviewed journals, have resisted use of the term Chronic Lyme Disease and its diagnosis. This is because other physicians and family members of sick persons, desperate to pin down some diagnosis, have misused the term CLD. Patients and family members can be pushed to a point of desperation when symptoms (that may or may not be indicative of Lyme disease) continue to fluctuate between exacerbation and relief.
In some cases, physicians diagnose patients presenting non-specific symptoms (fatigue, joint and muscle pain) with CLD, when actual diagnosis is post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS) or post Lyme disease syndrome (PLDS), or no Lyme disease at all. The risk of a “determined” CLD diagnosis when no evidence of current or past infection is present, is the unnecessary, potentially harmful, treatment that follows.
What about medical marijuana treatment for Lyme disease?
Most people who identify Lyme disease early—by either recognizing the species of tick, or recalling that they have been recently bitten, or associating individual symptoms as collective symptoms of Lyme disease—are able to treat themselves with antibiotics and get well.
Though the active ingredients in marijuana (THC, CBD, other cannabinoids, and terpenes) are not antimicrobial agents, medical marihuana can be helpful as a therapy. Meaning that, though medical marijuana is not a cure for Lyme disease, CLD or MSIDS, it can certainly help to relieve the symptoms that follow: nausea, joint pain, muscle pain, and anxiety. It can also help to bring back appetite.
In one round table discussion between a paediatric infectious disease specialist, a second paediatrician, and a paediatric neurologist, doctors explored one 17-year-old boy’s prior diagnosis of chronic Lyme disease. The boy chose to self-medicate with marijuana, though there were possible outside medical and psychological complications, and the doctors question whether the well-intentioned caregiver’s insistence on further testing and treatment for CLD were in fact harmful to the boy’s overall health and wellbeing.
Still, medical marijuana may rejuvenate patients who suffer from low energy, motivation, depression and lack of goal-oriented behaviour (i.e. not wanting to do anything), when they are possibly discouraged, enervated, or distracted by chronic and debilitating pain. Medical marijuana has been reported as a method of escape from physical and emotion pain related to Lyme disease. The question of medical marijuana’s overall health effects—whether or not such treatment is optimal, or how it affects adolescent and adult mental health—is separate from the known deleterious effects of other coping methods, such as alcohol, stimulants, or other drugs.
As of June 2014, U.S. based Cannabis Science Inc. and Mediwiet, Europe’s largest patient organization for those using medicinal cannabis therapies, and the Dutch Association of Lyme Disease Patients were discussing a possible research project to explore the potential of medical marijuana and cannabis-based therapies for relief of pain and reduction of inflammation caused by bacterial infection.
In Canada, under Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), medical marijuana is legally available for patients who have been authorized by their doctor. Currently, only dried cannabis, the bud or flower of the marijuana, is available for authorized patients.
Listernick, R., M.D. (2004). A 17-year-old boy previously diagnosed with chronic lyme disease. Pediatric Annals, 33(8), 494-8.
“Cannabis Science Inc. Moves Forward with MEDIWIET Preparing Observational Study in the Netherlands.” Clinical Trials Week 9 June 2014: 255. Academic OneFile. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.