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Psychiatric Problem or Lyme Disease?: Misdiagnoses Delay Patients’ Access to Time-Sensitive Treatment

The May/June 2008 issue of Psychology Today has an interesting article about misdiagnoses, in this case mistaking the signs of Lyme disease for symptoms of various psychiatric illnesses. Most people don’t realize that Lyme disease means anything more than swollen, creaky joints from a tick bite, but the disease can actually lead to a multitude of symptoms, including cognitive impairment, if left untreated.

Soon after moving from an apartment in Queens to a more rural area in Westchester County, New York, author Pamela Weintraub and her family began to show signs of the disease they now know is called neuroborreliosis, or Lyme disease infection after it has advanced to the central nervous system and brain. Although symptoms of neuroborreliosis vary widely, encephalopathy (a confused state of “brain fog”) is a common indicator; Weintraub describes this feeling as “a disorienting lapse of memory, an inability to concentrate, difficulty falling asleep, and profound fatigue”.

For years after the family’s move to Westchester, Weintraub also experienced migraines with nausea, sore and swollen knees, buzzing in her hands, and impaired vision. Her formerly easygoing and bright husband suddenly developed a temper and could no longer remember simple words; her younger son slept up to 15 hours a day; and her older son’s joints ached even when he spent all day sitting in the tub – such a broad range of symptoms, it’s no small wonder that physicians and psychiatrists found the Weintraubs so difficult to diagnose.

However, the Weintraubs also wondered early on if Lyme disease could be to blame for their symptoms. Their physician refused to listen and sent them to a psychiatrist, who sent them right back to the physician again for more testing – wasting critical early treatment time all the while.

“Doctors can destroy patients by telling them that a true, physical disease is all in the head,” says psychiatrist Virginia Sherr of Holland, Pennsylvania…In the Lyme hot zone of Bucks County, she sees a new case of Lyme encephalopathy every week. “I am a psychiatrist. These are not people who are referred to me because they have Lyme disease – they are sent because they have panic attacks, hallucinations, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression. They are in agony – not only neuropsychiatric pain, but physical pain as well. They have never been hypochondriacal in their lives, but that is how they are labeled. They are encephalopathic, but they have been told they are not by physicians who wouldn’t know a case of encephalopathy if they fell over it. They are physically sick, but are blamed by doctors who say: ‘You belong to a cult if you think you have Lyme,’ or ‘You look okay to me.’”

How to avoid the woes of the Weintraubs? Watch carefully for ticks after spending time in overgrown areas, and don’t hesitate to head to the doctor for testing if you feel off after outdoor exposure during tick-heavy times of year. An early diagnosis is very important for treatment – all you need is a course of antibiotics for a month or so and you’re good to go – but, as Weinberg says, missing that early diagnosis can cause the illness to “smolder and progress, causing a disabling, degenerative disease that confounds doctors and thrusts patients into the netherworld of unexplained, untreatable ills.”

All in all, Ms. Weinberg’s story is an excellent illustration of the importance of good communication between patients and doctors, as well as paying careful attention to one’s own health in order to catch those early warning signs before they develop into a full-blown problem.

Read the full article here: Lyme Disease: The Great Imitator

Psychiatric Problem or Lyme Disease?: Misdiagnoses Delay Patients’ Access to Time-Sensitive Treatment

Renée M. Grinnell

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APA Reference
Grinnell, R. (2018). Psychiatric Problem or Lyme Disease?: Misdiagnoses Delay Patients’ Access to Time-Sensitive Treatment. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 7 Jun 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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