Putting a Pin into Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

As a social media platform, Pinterest is best known as a place to share recipes or get tips about fashion and home decorating — topics that appeal to its core audience of women.

But over the years Pinterest has quietly evolved into a surprisingly good place to learn about chronic pain and to network with others in the pain community, according to researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University. Their study, “Pinning to Cope: Using Pinterest for Chronic Pain Management,” was recently published in the journal Health Education & Behavior.

“We’re seeing that Pinterest is being used by patients to really support each other, to provide information for each other, and to just find an outlet for dealing with chronic pain,” said Jeanine Guidry, PhD, who studies social media and mobile technology.

Guidry and co-author Eric Benotsch, PhD, a psychology professor at VCU, analyzed 502 posts on Pinterest about chronic pain and found – not surprisingly -- that nearly all referred in some way to the severity of pain.

But rather than just complaining about their pain, many of the posters shared or “pinned” positive tips on self-care and pain management, along with tips for caregivers and friends. About 18% of the posts used humor as a coping mechanism.

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“Our findings show that, first of all, people are talking about chronic pain on Pinterest,” Guidry said. “But second of all, our findings show that the vast majority of posts were by individuals.”

Relatively few of the posts originated with healthcare or public health organizations, and researchers said there was “cause for concern” about the lack of information from reputable health sources. A key finding was that posts about chronic pain on Pinterest have a higher level of user engagement than most other healthcare topics.

“Knowing that this conversation about chronic pain is taking place on Pinterest, health communication professionals should consider using Pinterest [more] because they can really reach out to the people who are trying to manage chronic pain,” Guidry said.

Pinterest has about 250 million active users and 80 percent of them are women. Guidry says the social media platform could be leveraged more to communicate with pain sufferers.

“Is it the biggest platform for these kind of topics? No, but it’s obvious it’s being used,” she said. “And it’s an outlet we should use as health communicators.

“When you look at these Pinterest posts, you see people trying to manage pain and trying to help each other and trying to provide support to each other. That is something that could be turned into an effective tool for health care providers and for communicators.”

Guidry said the study’s findings are encouraging because they suggest that people with chronic pain are posting about healthy coping mechanisms and other people are engaging with them.

“Chronic pain posts have a strong presence on Pinterest, and health care professionals should both consider utilizing the platform in order to reach a population they might not otherwise reach, as well as broadening this field of study to determine a clearer picture of the potential uses of this and other social media platforms,” she said.

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Ambroxol: A Potential New Treatment for Chronic Pain

By A Rahman Ford, PNN Columnist

Researchers say a drug long used in cough syrup and cold medicines shows potential for treating some types of neuropathic pain.

A small study recently published in the journal Headache found that topical administration of ambroxol in a cream could significantly decrease pain in patients with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic facial condition that can make even routine tasks such as brushing one’s teeth excruciatingly painful. 

In their review of the medical records of five trigeminal neuralgia patients, German researchers reported that all five patients experienced pain reduction with ambroxol 20% cream being applied within 30 minutes of a pain flare, with pain relief lasting from 4 to 6 hours.  In one case, pain was eliminated completely in one week.  

The results were similar to those of previous German studies and were so significant that researchers recommended that ambroxol “should be investigated further as a matter of urgency.”

Similarly, a recent study in the journal Pain Management found that application of topical ambroxol reduced spontaneous pain in several patients with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), a little understood nerve condition that causes chronic pain after a significant injury or surgery.  Notably, ambroxol therapy improved several other neuropathy-related conditions in CRPS patients, including edema, allodynia, hyperalgesia, skin reddening, motor dysfunction and skin temperature.

An Old Drug with a New Purpose

With a pharmacological history that can be traced back to Indian ayurvedic medicine, ambroxol was initially approved in 1978 as a medication to break down mucus and make it easier to eliminate by coughing.  It is generally administered in tablet or syrup form. 

Ambroxol is also used to treat a sore throat associated with pharyngitis, thus its potential role as a potent local anesthetic.  The drug’s anesthetic properties stem from its ability to block sodium and calcium channels that transmit pain signals.

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Although the idea that ambroxol can treat a sore throat is widely accepted, its application to other forms of pain is more recent.  

Previous studies using animal models of neuropathic pain have been promising.  In a 2005 study, researchers effectively reduced – and in some cases eliminated – chronic neuropathic and inflammatory pain in rats. Indian researchers also found ambroxol effective in treating neuropathic pain in rats, attributing its success to its antioxidative and anti-inflammatory properties.  Unfortunately, human studies are few at this point.

Ambroxol and Fibromyalgia

A 2017 Clinical Rheumatology study showed that ambroxol can play a key role in treating chronic pain associated with fibromyalgia.  As reported by Fibromyalgia News Today, researchers from Mexico added ambroxol to the treatment regimens of 25 fibromyalgia patients, three times a day for one month.  At the end of the study, pain scores decreased significantly and there was also noticeable improvement in sleep disturbances, stiffness and autonomic nervous system dysfunction.  No major adverse events were reported. 

Another 2017 study supported these findings, with the authors concluding that “fibromyalgia treatment with ambroxol should be systematically investigated” because the drug “is the only treatment option used thus far that has the potential to address not just individual but all of the aforementioned aspects of pain.”

Although data on its effectiveness in humans are limited, ambroxol shows great potential in treating painful conditions for which there are currently few safe and effective options.  It is particularly attractive because it has few significant side effects, is not addictive and can be administered topically in some instances.

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A. Rahman Ford, PhD, is a lawyer and research professional. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and the Howard University School of Law, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Howard Law Journal. He earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rahman lives with chronic inflammation in his digestive tract and is unable to eat solid food.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Hormones & Pain Care: What Every Patient Should Know

By Forest Tennant, MD, Guest Columnist

As we start the year 2019, every chronic pain patient needs to know the status of hormones and pain care. Unfortunately, the recent hysteria over opioids has obscured the positive advances in the understanding and application of hormonal care to the relief and recovery of pain patients.

In fact, research and clinical experience is starting to revolutionize the way I personally think about pain care. Hormones are showing us the natural, biologic way the body deals with pain and injury. They are clearly the way forward.

Why the Excitement Over Hormones?

Hormones have recently been discovered to be made in the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system – CNS). Some hormones are made that have the specific job and function to protect (“neuroprotection”) CNS tissue from injury and to regrow the injured tissue (“neuroregeneration”). These hormones are collectively called “neurohormones.”

Intractable, chronic pain is actually a type of poisonous, electromagnetic energy that causes injury by producing inflammation (“neuroinflammation”) in the CNS and implanting the pain (e.g. “centralization”) so as to make it constantly (“24/7”) present.

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The process is similar to dropping acid on your skin which burns and causes inflammation to be followed by tissue destruction and scar formation. Fortunately, some neurohormones are made in the CNS to stop the pain, inflammation, tissue destruction and scarring process and rebuild the nerve cell network in the CNS.

Until recently, we physicians didn’t have a clue on how to enhance the natural, biologic hormonal system to help pain patients.

Excitement over neurohormones has really been enhanced by research in rats that had their spinal cords cut so that they walked around their cages dragging their hind legs. They were given some neurohormones which healed their spinal cords to the point that they could normally walk.

Other animal research studies using different test models with CNS tissue have also shown the power of specific hormones to heal and regrow brain and spinal cord nerve cells. This author can’t speak for others, but, in my opinion, these research studies are so compelling that hormone use in pain care has got to be fully investigated.

Are We Making Headway?

Absolutely, yes! First, eight specific hormones made in the CNS have been identified that produce healing effects in animals and show benefit in early clinical trials with chronic pain patients. These early trials indicate that some neurohormones can reduce pain and produce healing and curative neuroregeneration effects.

Six of these hormones are collectively known as “neurosteroids.” Don’t let the term “steroid” raise your eyebrows as it refers only to the chemical structure and not the complications of cortisone-type drugs. Some of the neurosteroids are known to the lay person such as estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone.

Two of the hormones produced in the CNS that control pain but are not classified as a “neurosteroid” are human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) and oxytocin.

CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM HORMONES

  • ALLOPREGNANOLONE
  • ESTRADIOL
  • DEHYDROEPIANDROSTERONE (DHEA)
  • HUMAN CHORIONIC GONADOTROPIN (HCG)
  • OXYTOCIN
  • PREGNENOLONE
  • PROGESTERONE
  • TESTOSTERONE

Due to all the controversies surrounding opioids and pain treatment, one would never know we have, in the past couple of years, made serious headway with hormones and pain care. Medical science has discovered which hormones reduce chronic pain and how the hormones can be prescribed. The overall hormone advance in pain care can, however, be generally summarized in that one or more of the neurohormones can be administered to provide some curative and regenerative benefit in essentially every chronic pain patient.

Replenishment of Deficient Hormones

The production of hormones made in the CNS can be assessed by blood tests which are available in every commercial, community laboratory. The amount of hormone in your blood stream is a pooled amount of hormone made in the CNS and in the glands; adrenals, ovary, and gonads (ovary and testicles).

I recommend a hormone blood test panel of these 6 hormones: cortisol, DHEA, estradiol, pregnenolone, progesterone, and testosterone. If any are low, they should be replenished. Why? Severe chronic pain may overwhelm the production of one or more of these hormones.

If you take opioids and other symptomatic pain medications such as antidepressants and muscle relaxants, you may actually suppress the production of some hormones, particularly testosterone, DHEA, and pregnenolone.

I highly recommend that every chronic pain patient have a hormone blood panel test at least twice a year and replenish any hormone that is low in the blood stream.
— Dr. Forest Tennant

The reason you must replace any deficient hormone is because all 6 of them activate pain centers (“receptors”) in the CNS to reduce pain and produce a healing and curative effect. These hormones act as sort of a co-factor or “booster” of symptomatic pain relievers such as opioids and muscle relaxants. I highly recommend that every chronic pain patient have a hormone blood panel test at least twice a year and replenish any hormone that is low in the blood stream.

The Pregnancy Connection

A couple of years ago I was presenting a scientific poster at a medical meeting on some of my hormone research. An old friend came up and asked, “What took you so long?”

I initially thought he was insulting me. He wasn’t. He was lamenting, along with me, a sad fact. We should have long ago been studying the pregnancy hormones, HCG and oxytocin, for everyday pain care.

Why? HCG in pregnancy is the hormone that grows the CNS in the embryo and fetus. Oxytocin is the natural pain reliever in pregnancy that allows a big “tumor” to grow in the abdomen without death-dealing pain. Also, oxytocin surges at the time of delivery to make sure that pain doesn’t kill the expectant mother.

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With such obvious knowledge about natural pain relief in pregnancy, we should have tested these hormones for severe, chronic pain problems before now. Do they work? Yes. Long-term HCG use (over 60 days) is proving most effective in reducing pain and restoring function in some patients with adhesive arachnoiditis and other severe pain problems. Oxytocin is an effective short-term pain reliever that can be taken for pain flares. It can even be taken with symptomatic pain relievers like aspirin, acetaminophen, or a stimulant to help a patient avoid opioids.

Goodbye Symptomatic Treatments

Until the hormones came our way, you never heard much about “symptomatic” versus “curative” care. Why? Up until the discovery that hormones are made inside the CNS and produce curative effects, about all we could do was prescribe symptomatic pain relievers such as opioids, muscle relaxants, and anti-seizure (“neuropathic”) agents. There was no need or hope that we can permanently reduce severe chronic pain, much less hold out a hope for cure or near cure.

Chronic pain patients are beginning to use DHEA, pregnenolone, testosterone, estradiol, progesterone, and HCG on a long-term basis. Dosages are beginning to be determined. For example, DHEA requires a dosage of 200 mg or more each day. Pregnenolone requires 100 mg or more. Patients report reduced levels of pain, fatigue, and depression.

Although few controlled studies have yet been done, the open-label clinical trials are impressive and clearly call for chronic pain patients to get started with the neurohormones that are being found to be beneficial. Neurohormones have changed our thinking and old-hat beliefs.

Every severe chronic pain patient needs to know they can probably do a lot of mending with hormonal care. Be, however, clearly advised. Hormones can mend a lot of damaged nerve tissue, but they can’t fix scar tissue once it sets in.

So far at my clinic site, we have around 60 to 70 people on oxytocin. Early results look good so far. Many are also on DHEA and pregnenolone as well. The treatment seems to be working.
— Nurse practitioner

Unfortunately, millions of severe, chronic pain patients have had no option in the past couple of decades except to take symptomatic medication and use such devices as electrical stimulators.

Even long-standing severe chronic pain patients who are on opioids, however, can almost always benefit from one or more hormones. Most important, I am finding that hormone administration is the best way in most chronic pain patients to reduce opioid dosages but still get good pain relief.

Therapeutic Trials

One of my major purposes in writing this report is to encourage all chronic pain patients to embark upon a search for one or more hormonal treatments that will reduce their pain, need for opioids, and yield a better life. Don’t wait for your medical practitioner to offer hormone testing or treatment. To many overworked medical practitioners, such a request may be considered a real nuisance or even a threat.

Be prepared. Check with other patients in your social media group. Know what you need. Make it easy on your medic. Please share with your social media group this report and any materials you have about hormones and pain care. Most MD’s, NP’s, and PA’s will appreciate your preparation and desire to try something new on a short-term, trial basis.

Every chronic pain patient needs to know that all the hormonal agents described here can be safely tried for one month. This is known as a “therapeutic trial.” Specifically ask your medical practitioner for a one-month, therapeutic trial. In this manner you can find out if the hormone is right for you and whether you should continue with it past one month.

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Forest Tennant, MD, MPH, DrPH, recently retired from clinical practice but continues his groundbreaking research on the treatment of intractable pain and arachnoiditis. To download a complete copy of Dr. Tennant’s report on hormones and pain care, click here.

This report is provided as a public service by the Arachnoiditis Research and Education Project of the Tennant Foundation and is republished with permission. Correspondence should be sent to veractinc@msn.com

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Why a Bad Night’s Sleep Causes More Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

It’s no secret that chronic pain makes sleeping difficult. And lack of sleep often makes pain worse.  But how exactly does poor sleep cause more pain?

For the first time, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have identified neural glitches in the sleep-deprived brain that can intensify and prolong pain. Their findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, help explain the self-perpetuating cycles that contribute to pain and sleep loss.

“Anyone who has had persistent back pain knows that they don’t sleep well when they are in pain. They also know that when they don’t sleep well, it hurts more the next day,” said senior author Matthew Walker, PhD, a UC Berkeley professor of neuroscience and psychology.

"If poor sleep intensifies our sensitivity to pain, as this study demonstrates, then sleep must be placed much closer to the center of patient care, especially in hospital wards.”

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In a small study involving 25 healthy young adults, Walker and his colleagues found that nerves that process pain signals and activate the body’s pain relief hormones are disrupted by insufficient sleep. Study participants were given MRI brain scans twice – once after a good night’s sleep and once after a night of no sleep – and then subjected to a thermal pain test in the laboratory  

“We found some surprising changes. The sleep-deprived brain seems to let more pain in,” Walker said.

Brain imaging showed increased activity in the brain's somatosensory cortex, but there was less activity in the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain's reward circuitry that increases dopamine levels. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s been called the “feel-good hormone” because it is associated with feelings of euphoria and happiness.

Another key brain region found to slow down in the sleep-deprived brain was the insula, which evaluates pain signals and prepares the body to respond.

"This is a critical neural system that assesses and categorizes the pain signals and allows the body's own natural painkillers to come to the rescue," said Adam Krause, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in Walker's Center for Human Sleep Science lab at UC Berkeley.

To further test the sleep-pain connection, researchers surveyed more than 230 adults of all ages nationwide. Respondents were asked to report their nightly hours of sleep, as well as their day-to-day pain levels. The results showed that even minor shifts in sleep patterns were correlated with changes in pain sensitivity.

"The results clearly show that even very subtle changes in nightly sleep -- reductions that many of us think little of in terms of consequences -- have a clear impact on your next-day pain burden," Krause said.

"The optimistic takeaway here is that sleep is a natural analgesic that can help manage and lower pain," said Walker. "Yet ironically, one environment where people are in the most pain is the worst place for sleep -- the noisy hospital ward."

Walker's goal is to work with hospitals to create more sleep-friendly patient facilities.

"Our findings suggest that patient care would be markedly improved, and hospital beds cleared sooner, if uninterrupted sleep were embraced as an integral component of healthcare management," he said.

Several previous studies have found that getting a good night’s sleep helps reduce sensitivity to pain. Researchers in Norway measured pain sensitivity in more than 10,000 adults and found a strong link between pain and insomnia.

Another study in Norway found that women who have trouble sleeping are at greater risk of developing fibromyalgia – although it’s not clear if there’s a cause and effect relationship between the two symptoms.

Is Pain a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Getting out of bed, taking a shower, doing the dishes and other simple chores can be painful experiences for someone with intractable chronic pain. But some of that pain may be self-fulfilling: Getting out of bed hurts because you expect it to.

That's the theory behind a new brain imaging study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, which found that false expectations about pain can persist even when reality demonstrates otherwise.

"We discovered that there is a positive feedback loop between expectation and pain," said senior author Tor Wager, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder.

"The more pain you expect, the stronger your brain responds to the pain. The stronger your brain responds to the pain, the more you expect."

Wager and his colleagues recruited 34 people for a heat test to see if the expectation of pain can cause changes in neural mechanisms of the brain.

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Participants were taught to associate one symbol with low heat and another with painful heat. Then, the subjects were placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, which measures blood flow in the brain as a proxy for neural activity.

For 60 minutes, subjects were shown the low or high pain cues (the symbols “Low” and “High” or the letters L and W), and then asked to rate how much acute pain they experienced as heat was applied to their forearms or legs. Unbeknownst to the participants, heat intensity was not actually related to the preceding cue.

The study found that when subjects expected more heat, brain regions involved in threat and fear were more active as they waited for the heat to be applied. Regions involved in the generation of pain were also more active when they received the stimulus.

The result? Participants reported more pain with high-pain cues, regardless of how much heat they actually got.

"This suggests that expectations had a rather deep effect, influencing how the brain processes pain," said lead author Marieke Jepma, PhD, a researcher in Wager's lab who is now a researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Many subjects also demonstrated a high degree of confirmation bias -- a tendency to learn from things that reinforced their beliefs, while discounting those that didn’t. If they expected high pain and got it, they might expect even more pain the next time. But if they expected high pain and didn't get it, nothing changed.

"You would assume that if you expected high pain and got very little you would know better the next time. But interestingly, they failed to learn," said Wager.

Researchers say the study was the first to demonstrate the dynamics of a feedback loop between pain expectations and neural mechanisms that cause pain. Although the test only involved short-term acute pain, researchers say the findings may help explain why chronic pain can linger long after damaged tissues have healed.

"Our results suggest that negative expectations about pain or treatment outcomes may in some situations interfere with optimal recovery, both by enhancing perceived pain and by preventing people from noticing that they are getting better," said Jepma. "Just realizing that things may not be as bad as you think may help you to revise your expectation and, in doing so, alter your experience.”

Childhood Abuse Raises Lupus Risk for Adult Women

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Women who experienced physical or emotional abuse as children have a significantly higher risk of developing lupus as adults, according to new research presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology.

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in multiple organs. Most patients have times when the disease is active, followed by times when the disease is mostly quiet and in remission. Lupus is far more common in women than men.

In prior work, exposure to stress and stress-related disorders, notably post-traumatic stress disorder, has been associated with increased risk of subsequently developing autoimmune diseases, including lupus,” said lead author Candace Feldman, MD, an Assistant Professor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School.

“Exposure to adverse childhood experiences has specifically been associated with higher levels of inflammation, as well as with changes in immune function.”

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To identify what kind of childhood trauma raises the risk of lupus, Feldman and her colleagues looked at health data for over 67,000 women participating in the Nurses’ Health Study II, an ongoing study of female nurses that began in 1989. There were 93 diagnosed cases of lupus among the women.

In detailed questionnaires, the women were asked whether and how often as children they experienced physical abuse from a family member, or yelling, screaming or insulting remarks from a family member. The women were also asked to recall incidents of sexual abuse by either adults or older children.

Researchers found that physical and emotional abuse were associated with a more than twofold greater risk of developing lupus. But the data did not reveal a statistically significant association between sexual abuse and lupus risk.

The study’s findings suggest that the effects of exposure to physical and emotional abuse during childhood may be more far-reaching than previously appreciated,” said Feldman. “The strong association observed between childhood abuse and lupus risk suggests the need for further research to understand biological and behavioral changes triggered by stress combined with other environmental exposures. In addition, physicians should consider screening their patients for experiences of childhood abuse and trauma.”

This is not the first study to find an association between childhood trauma and chronic illness in adults. A recent study of 265 adults in New York City found that those who experienced more adversity or trauma as children were more likely to have mood or sleep problems as adults -- which in turn made them more likely to have physical pain.

Another study found that children who witness domestic violence between their parents are significantly more likely to experience migraine headaches as adults. A large survey also found that nearly two-thirds of adults who suffer from migraines experienced emotional abuse as children.

New Lyme Disease Test Could Lead to Earlier Treatment

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

At long last, scientists are close to developing a new test to detect Lyme disease weeks sooner than current tests -- allowing patients to begin treatment earlier.

Lyme disease is a bacterial illness spread by ticks. Left untreated, it can lead to chronic conditions such as joint and back pain, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and neuropathy.

Borrelia burgdorferi was first identified as the bacteria that causes Lyme disease in 1983.  The antibody tests currently used to detect Borrelia were developed a decade later and have a number of shortcomings. They can take up to three weeks to get results and cannot distinguish between an active infection or an old one.

A team of scientists recently reported in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases that advances in molecular diagnostics should make a new DNA test for Borrelia technically feasible.

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“These direct tests are needed because you can get Lyme disease more than once, features are often non-diagnostic and the current standard FDA-approved tests cannot distinguish an active, ongoing infection from a past cured one,” said lead author Steven Schutzer, MD, a physician-scientist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

“The problem is worsening because Lyme disease has increased in numbers to 300,000 per year in the United States and is spreading across the country and world.”

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Early symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, chills, headaches, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes. A delayed rash often appears at the site of the tick bite, which resembles a ring or bulls-eye. When there is no rash, a reliable laboratory test is needed to detect an active disease.

“The new tests that directly detect the Lyme agent’s DNA are more exact and are not susceptible to the same false-positive results and uncertainties associated with current FDA-approved indirect tests,” said Schutzer.

Lyme disease is usually treated with antibiotics, but some patients experience complications that lead to Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS), with long-term symptoms such as fatigue, muscle and joint pain and cognitive issues. Autoimmune diseases have also been associated with chronic Lyme disease.