Can Lyme Disease Change Your Personality?

Have you or a loved one ever experienced mental health symptoms or personality changes that seemed to have no definable source? If so, it might be helpful to get tested for Lyme disease.

Lyme disease is transmitted by a tiny creature, the tick, but it can have an outsized array of negative impacts on physical and mental health. It can also trigger—or be misdiagnosed as—a wide variety of other conditions, and it’s often overlooked by medical professionals.

This is especially devastating when someone undergoes drastic personality changes, with chronic Lyme disease as the unknown culprit.

Personality changes can occur because this neuropsychiatric condition can impact moods, attention, and memory, or stir up feelings of anger or anxiousness. It may be mistaken for disorders such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) or lead to irritability or even violence, a phenomenon sometimes called Lyme rage.

Let’s take a look at how and why Lyme disease can affect the personality, mimic various physical and mental health conditions, and lead to serious, even deadly, side effects.

Lyme disease can affect the personality, mimic various physical and mental health conditions, and lead to serious, even deadly, side effects. Click To Tweet

LYME DISEASE SYMPTOMS

Lyme disease is a type of vector-borne disease, which means that it’s transmitted from animals to other animals (including humans). Lyme is spread when infected deer ticks pass along a bacteria named Borrelia burgdorferi.  

These eight-legged arachnids, also called black-legged ticks, attach to a host—often unnoticed, since they can be as small as poppy seeds—and feed on its blood.

The bacteria can infect the host within just 36 to 48 hours, but the bacteria can lie dormant for months, or even years, in the central nervous system.

If tick-borne disease symptoms do arise, their timetable varies—they can occur from 3 days to 30 or more days after the initial bite. The host may experience flu-like symptoms, the telltale bulls-eye rash, or swollen lymph nodes. But it’s also possible that no symptoms are apparent at all.

A lack of symptoms can be dangerous because, without treatment, more serious side effects can develop. These can include facial palsy, limb and nerve pain, irregular heartbeat, joint pain and swelling, and gastrointestinal disturbances.

In serious cases, inflammation of the brain and spinal cord can affect the central nervous system. These symptoms can mystify patients and doctors alike, since they can emulate those of other neurological disorders. For example, people may confuse Lyme with conditions such as fibromyalgia, dementia, traumatic brain injury, and chronic fatigue syndrome.

HOW LYME DISEASE IMPACTS MENTAL HEALTH

Lyme affects the brain and the immune system, leading to inflammation. Evaluating the SPECT brain scans of patients with infectious diseases like Lyme, the brain looks as if it has been exposed to toxins.

These changes can provoke detrimental effects on the personality, including symptoms like irritability or explosive anger, sometimes called Lyme rage.

Both patients and loved ones have reported personality changes as a result of chronic Lyme disease.  This may lead to symptoms associated with mental health conditions like borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, schizoaffective personality disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Lyme disease may also mimic other psychiatric conditions, including psychotic disorders (such as delusions, paranoia, and schizophrenia), depression, anxiety disorders, and bipolar disorder.

Given these damaging effects, it’s not surprising that Lyme disease is also associated with increased suicidality. A Danish study published in 2021 concluded that those diagnosed with Lyme displayed an increased risk of mental disorders, affective disorders, suicide attempts, and completed suicides.

Lyme patients “had a 28% percent higher rate of mental disorders and were twice as likely to have attempted suicide post-infection, compared to individuals without the diagnosis,” according to a post-study report from the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry.

Brian Fallon, MD, MPH, the lead author of the study, noted that Lyme disease is not only associated with a higher risk for severe cardiac, rheumatologic, and neurologic problems, but severe mental health problems as well.

These findings backed up an earlier study that found links between suicidality and Lyme disease. Researchers hypothesized that immune-mediated and metabolic changes were the catalysts for psychiatric symptoms, which may be further aggravated by prevailing negative attitudes about Lyme.

They added that some of these suicides “are associated with being overwhelmed by multiple debilitating symptoms, and others are impulsive, bizarre, and unpredictable.”

Chronic Lyme disease creates additional far-reaching health impacts, according to another 2021 study that evaluated neuropsychiatric and psychological symptoms in 252 patients. It concluded that they experienced significantly lower quality of life and sleep, as well as cognitive impairments in the areas of attention and memory.

Lyme patients also tended to have depressive symptoms. Only 3.1% of the patients were satisfied with their lives, while more than one-third of them (37%) scored in the lower third of the quality-of-life scale.

DELAYED DIAGNOSIS AND MISDIAGNOSIS OF LYME DISEASE

The 252-patient study referenced above noted that, on average, patients didn’t get diagnosed with Lyme until they had visited almost 8 different physicians. That equated to 8 years passing between the initial tick bite and an official diagnosis.

Overall, less than half of the patients (46%) received their diagnosis within the first 5 years after the onset of symptoms. In other words, Lyme disease is often diagnosed far too late.

Difficulty diagnosing Lyme disease occurs for many reasons:

  • Blood tests for detecting Lyme disease early can be unreliable, since antibodies might not develop until weeks after the infection.
  • Due to ticks’ small size, patients may not know they have been bitten—and there may be no obvious symptoms.
  • Because the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria can affect the brain, symptoms may mimic other disorders. Lyme has been called “the great imitator” for its tendency to be mistaken for other conditions.
  • Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria can become dormant for months or years in the central nervous system.
  • The Lyme pathogen type, known as a spirochete, can embed itself in cell membranes, including those in the brain, making it more difficult to detect.
  • Symptoms can manifest long after a tick bite, so doctors as well as patients might overlook Lyme as a potential culprit.

On a positive note, early diagnosis can make a huge difference in recovery, and treatment with antibiotics can usually alleviate symptoms. It’s recommended to visit a functional medicine physician who is well-versed in Lyme disease and its latest treatments to obtain a proper diagnosis.

Conversely, if you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms like cognitive or mental health issues and other treatments aren’t helping, you may benefit from tests for Lyme.

Functional brain imaging with SPECT technology can also assist in diagnosis by showing certain blood flow and activity patterns associated with these kinds of infections. SPECT can also help rule out Lyme disease in some cases.

Getting the proper diagnosis is the key to preventing this insidious illness from progressing undetected, creating potentially debilitating physical and mental health issues over time.

Lyme disease and its associated psychiatric and cognitive issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

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