Lyme disease is a common bacterial infection in humans caused by Borrelia burgdorferi, a tick-borne parasite. In the United States, B. burgdorferi is the only pathogen causing the disease, while the Eu and Asia have a few other related bacterial species which cause Lyme disease as well, including Borrelia afzelii or Borrelia garinii.
Importantly, Lyme disease typically only occurs in specific geographic areas. In Europe, its prevalence has primarily been observed in Scandinavian countries and Central Europe, with a minor number of cases reported throughout the rest of the country. Meanwhile, most Lyme disease cases in the USA occur in New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. On the contrary, the prevalence of Lyme disease is much lower on the Pacific Coast of the USA such as California or Oregon1.
The past decade has seen a small rise in the number of yearly reported Lyme disease cases by as much as 30,000 per year in the USA, and recent statements by the CDC estimate roughly 476,000 total cases in the USA yearly.
So how are individuals infected? Well, exposure to ticks is the key of course since Lyme disease is a tick-borne pathogen. Thus, persons with high exposure to tick-infested areas, such as in woodlands or fields in endemic areas, are at an elevated risk of becoming infected.
Diagnosis and Symptoms
Now, before we get into the interesting adjunctive treatment of hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) for Lyme disease infections, it’s important to understand the clinical manifestations and symptoms associated with the disease.
First off, Lyme disease infections can result in some nasty symptoms. Early-stage infections are commonly accompanied by a diagnosis known as ‘Erythema migrans,’ or EM, which is an itchy, painful lesion area on the skin at an infected area.
If left untreated, mid to late-stage infection is much worse. This is where multiple EM’s can develop throughout the whole body. However, more serious clinical manifestations result as well. In the worst case, severe arthritis, facial nerve palsy, meningitis (inflammation of the protective membranes of the brain/spinal cord), and even carditis (inflammation of the heart) can occur due to severe infection caused by B. burgdorferi.
Furthermore, individuals with the bacteria once are many times at a greater risk for being infected again following antibiotic therapy.
Lyme disease is treated with antibiotics – and the earlier it’s treated, the best chance you have for recovering fully and quickly.
However, some patients do experience joint and muscle pain, fatigue, or difficulty thinking even after antibiotic treatment, and this is referred to as post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS), or chronic Lyme disease (CLD).
Currently, there are no proven pharmacological methods for treating CLD, but some treatments do exist to help with symptoms. This is where HBOT comes in.
HBOT for Lyme Disease – Can it improve symptoms?
Before getting started, it’s important to note that HBOT is not an FDA-approved therapy for the treatment of Lyme disease. This is due to a lack of studies and evidence for or against its utility.
That being said, a number of promising clinical studies and case reports have shown that HBOT is effective in treating Lyme disease throughout the USA.
In a clinical trial conducted at Texas A&M University, 91 Lyme disease patients were given HBOT treatment (a total of 1,995 HBOT therapy sessions across all patients). The HBOT protocol included a 60-minute session for up to 3 months.
After the 3-month period, each patient was evaluated using a Lyme disease questionnaire developed by Lyme disease specialists. Surprisingly, 84% of the patients displayed either significant improvement in symptoms due to Lyme disease, or a complete elimination of their symptoms, indicating HBOT was markedly efficacious. The authors attributed the reduction in symptoms to the higher pressurized atmosphere of the HBOT chambers, which produces oxygen levels that kill off the bacterium responsible for the disease3.
Essentially, the study suggests HBOT removes bacteria and toxins from the body as the elevated oxygen in the blood delivered via HBOT kills bacteria/viruses. The increased blood oxygen may also aid in the removal of heavy metals and toxins which are often present in Lyme disease as well.
A few interesting case reports have replicated the findings by Texas A&M regarding HBOT for the treatment of Lyme disease as well.
In 2004, a healthy man from Taipei City was diagnosed with Lyme disease after experiencing symptoms for over a year, including fever, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and EM lesions. His symptoms persisted until 2007, where he was finally given an antibiotic cocktail over 4 years.
By 2011, the patient had not significantly improved and, rather than going back to an infection clinic for diagnosis and drug treatment, he went to a hospital for HBOT therapy instead.
The patient was characterized/diagnosed with CLD prior to HBOT treatment.
The doctors recommended 30 sessions of 2.5 ATA (pressure) for a duration of 90 minutes initially. Astoundingly, after the first 10 HBOT sessions, the patient reported a complete disappearance of some of his symptoms, including a loss of thinking ability and inability to sleep.
In the second 10 HBOT sessions, the patient reported more improvements as well. He no longer experienced numbness of his extremities, and the periorbital twitch he had been experiencing since the infection disappeared as well.
The third and final 10 sessions resulted in all his musculoskeletal system symptoms vanishing, suggesting that HBOT may be an effective treatment for CLD4.
Like the previous study conducted by Texas A&M, the authors reported the improvements likely were due to the increased blood oxygen levels to eliminate bacteria.
However, some other ways HBOT works to treat Lyme disease were discussed as well, such as:
- Stem cell production – Increased blood oxygen levels can help stimulate stem cell production throughout the body, and these stem cells can improve repair and recovery processes when tissues are damaged. This may help to alleviate arthritis or muscle/joint pains commonly associated with Lyme disease.
- Angiogenesis (New blood vessel formation) – HBOT treatment can reduce inflammation via increasing blood flow, which enables oxygen-rich blood to reach inflamed tissue.
- White blood cell production – Increased oxygen promotes white blood cell production, enhancing the body’s innate immune system.
- Repair brain functionality – The high pressure experienced by HBOT stimulates brain function and helps restore cognition
Altogether, Lyme disease, especially in the later stages if left untreated, can be nasty in numerous ways. And even worse, treatments for chronic Lyme disease symptoms are somewhat limited.
HBOT is one therapy that may see increased use for these symptoms in the future. Its ability to improve oxygenated blood and stimulate angiogenesis, tissue recovery and cognition are just some of the ways in which it can prevent or treat Lyme disease-associated symptoms. However, as discussed throughout this article, the evidence for its use for Lyme disease is vastly limited and somewhat controversial.
If you have Lyme Disease or would like to learn more about the other benefits of HBOT Therapy, schedule your first session. If you’re looking for Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy in NYC, visit Physio Logic in Brooklyn, NY. You can start by giving us a call or by filling out the form below.
- Fife, William P; Freeman, DM (1998). “Treatment of Lyme disease with hyperbaric oxygen therapy”. Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society Annual Meeting Abstract.