Back Pain & Lyme Disease: Symptoms, Treatment & Prevention

Summer brings ticks, ticks can bring Lyme disease, and Lyme disease can bring back pain, among other symptoms. Learn how to recognize the signs of Lyme disease and keep tick bites from ruining your summer.

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Summer’s all about fun in the sun, but remember to enjoy the warm weather safely. Be cautious around pools and other bodies of water, follow all safety directions with fireworks, and when you go out hiking or walking in nature, don’t forget your bug spray. A bite from a blacklegged tick, found throughout the eastern United States and even some places west of the Mississippi River, can give you Lyme disease, and there are few surer ways to put a damper on your summer fun.

Lyme disease can cause back painDon't let tick bites ruin your summer.

Approximately 15 percent of patients with Lyme disease develop debilitating and painful symptoms. Inflammation caused by the infection may play a role in the development of pain in the nerves, joints, and muscles. Though Lyme disease is most commonly associated with a circular rash on the skin after a tick bite, pain throughout the body — including back pain— is a common symptom, too.

If you’re experiencing severe back pain and other causes have been ruled out, speak with your doctor to get tested for Lyme disease.

What Is Lyme Disease?

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, affecting an estimated 329,000 individuals in the United States each year. It is spread through the bites of infected blacklegged ticks, commonly known as deer ticks.

Lyme disease can cause fatigue, fever, and joint and muscle pain. When treated with antibiotics in the early stages, most people make a quick and complete recovery. If left untreated, Lyme disease can lead to serious joint and nervous system complications.

Lyme Disease vs Rheumatoid Arthritis

Lyme disease can sometimes be confused for other conditions, and it’s not uncommon for patients presenting with Lyme disease-related joint pain to be misdiagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Both Lyme and RA cause joint pain and can be debilitating when left untreated, but there are differences.

  • Lyme arthritis tends to manifest in larger joints (e.g., knee), on one side of the body. Lyme joint pain tends to come and go.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis occurs more often in the hands, feet, fingers, and toes, and shows up on both sides of the body. RA joint pain and stiffness occurs every day, and is usually chronic.
  • Lyme disease usually goes away when treated, and most patients make a full recovery.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis treatment can manage symptoms and show the progression of the disease, but there is no cure.

“Lyme pain can often migrate throughout the body, and patients may have pain in their knee one week, and in their wrists the following week,” says Chicago-based integrative medicine specialist Casey Kelley, MD. “With rheumatoid arthritis, the pain often stays where it begins and does not migrate.”

Getting Lyme puts you at greater risk for later developing RA and other types of inflammatory arthritis. One study found that nearly one-third of participants who had Lyme-arthritis later developed an inflammatory arthritis.

Lyme Disease Symptoms and Complications

Lyme disease symptoms typically begin 3-30 days after you’ve been bitten by a tick. Early symptoms of Lyme disease include:

  • Bull’s eye rash
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Tick bites cause Lyme disease and back painA circular bullseye-shaped rash is a telltale sign of a tick bite.

If left untreated, more severe signs and symptoms of Lyme disease may appear over the following weeks, including:

  • Back and neck pain
  • Cardiac events (e.g., heart palpitations, abnormal heartbeat)
  • Facial paralysis (e.g., Bell’s palsy)
  • Joint, muscle, bone, and tendon aches and pains
  • Meningitis
  • Neurological symptoms (e.g., confusion, dizziness, memory loss)
  • Severe headaches

Lyme Disease Treatments 

The first line of treatment for Lyme disease is antibiotics. Oral antibiotics are prescribed for early-stage Lyme disease, to be taken for 14 to 21 days. Most people who detect Lyme in the early stages have a speedy recovery.

If your Lyme disease symptoms have progressed past the early stages, your doctor may recommend intravenous antibiotics for 14 to 28 days to eliminate the infection. You may continue to feel symptoms for a few weeks or months after treatment if Lyme is detected in later stages.

Some people may have ongoing symptoms of severe pain, fatigue, and mental fogginess that lasts for more than 6 months after treatment. This is called post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS). Studies suggest that low back pain is a common symptom in people with PTLDS.

The exact cause of PTLDS is not fully understood, but it may be a result of the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria triggering an auto-immune response, causing symptoms that last long after the infection is gone. It is believed that the bacteria may get into tendons, muscles, intervertebral discs, ligaments and the linings of nerves — including in the spine — causing inflammation, muscle spasms, and pain.

“Unfortunately, there’s no ‘silver bullet’ for Lyme-associated back pain,” says Dr. Kelley. Physical therapy can be helpful for Lyme-related back pain. “You may find some relief through stretches and exercises with the help of a knowledgeable and experienced physical therapist.”

“Anti-inflammatories, such as turmeric, can also bring relief to some patients,” advises Dr. Kelley. Turmeric contains curcuminoids, which are bioactive compounds that have powerful anti-inflammatory effects and may help reduce Lyme-related back pain.

Treatments for PTLDS usually involve multiple components to help reduce symptoms and manage the stress of living with a chronic condition, including:

  • Prescription medications (e.g., corticosteroids to reduce inflammation and pain)
  • Nutrition
  • Dietary supplements
  • Complementary therapies (e.g., chiropractic care, acupuncture)
  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy

Try various methods to learn what provides you with the most relief. “If you have Lyme-related back pain, don’t give up hope — there are things that both you and your medical team can do to find relief. Be your own best advocate. If you’re feeling back pain, make sure to get the care that you deserve,” advises Dr. Kelley.

Lyme Disease Prevention

Guard against Lyme disease and back pain with bug sprayBug spray and long pants can help keep ticks off you.

Reducing exposure to ticks is the best way to prevent Lyme disease. Ticks are most active during the warmer months of the year, but bites can occur year-round. There are steps you can take to prevent tick bites, including:

  • Use bug repellant. The CDC recommends using bug sprays that contain DEET, picaridin, IR3535, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone to reduce the risk of a tick bite.
  • Wear protective clothing. If you’re spending time in wooded, grassy, or bushy areas, cover as much of your skin as possible, tuck your pants into your socks, and wear a hat. Wash your clothing in hot water afterwards or tumble dry with high heat for 10 minutes to kill any ticks.
  • Check your body for ticks after being outdoors. Use a mirror to view all parts of your body, particularly in and around your hair, under your armpits, in and around your ears, between your legs, behind your knees, and around your waist.
  • Shower. Showering within two hours of coming indoors can wash off any undetected ticks.
Updated on: 07/13/21
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