Chronic Illness, Chronic Worry?
I recently had a new health scare after I discovered a strange and suspicious-looking bug bite (?) on my arm with a bruise-like ring around it. Oh, no! Bug bite with a ring?! I HAVE LYME DISEASE! Panic ensued immediately and my thought process went something like this: "Ohmygodohmygodohmygod! I CANNOT get another chronic illness! I can't handle it! What will I do?!"
Panic over potential Lyme disease
This was obviously a dramatic and a bit ridiculous reaction, but the fear was very real. I think many of us who suffer from one chronic illness, or more, live with this constant shadow of fear hanging over us: fear of acquiring new chronic illnesses and additional health problems.
What is Lyme?
Lyme disease, if you're unfamiliar, is a bacterial infection that's transmitted by being bitten from infected deer ticks. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms can include: rash, fever, chills, fatigue, headache, body aches, joint pain, neurological problems, nausea, and vomiting, among others. Luckily there is effective treatment for Lyme disease if you catch it quickly, which is usually a form of antibiotics. If you aren't able to get treated right away, Post-Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome (PTLDS) may occur, which can result in chronic and more severe symptoms. This chronic Lyme disease is what scared me the most when I first noticed the strange mark/bite on my arm, with the frightening thought of having to live with even more chronic illness problems on top of having RA.
RA can come equipped with comorbidities
It's not uncommon for RA patients to have comorbidities, or co-occurring conditions, along with or sometimes resulting from RA. According to Everyday Health, patients with RA face a higher risk of heart disease (heart attack, stroke, congestive heart failure, acute coronary syndrome), asthma, COPD, infections, mental health conditions, some cancers (leukemia, multiple myeloma), Sjögren's Syndrome, and anemia, to name several. Personally, I also have friends who battle not only against RA but diabetes, IBS, lupus, and other chronic diseases.
I was loosely diagnosed myself with Sjögren's Syndrome in 2004, seven years after my RA diagnosis, after a sudden and intensely painful onset of extreme dry eyes, eye inflammation, and blepharitis. My dry eye specialist seemed pretty confident connecting my eye issues with my RA and settling on a Sjögren's diagnosis, despite my tear ducts and salivary glands being fine and normal. Apparently it was the blepharitis, or eyelid inflammation, that was the culprit. So what caused the eyelid inflammation? My doctor couldn't say for sure, but he acknowledged that my risk of having Sjögren's was high because of my already overactive immune system.
Thankfully, today my eyes are doing fine and they never returned to the severely horrible state they were in during 2004-2005, although they're still too dry to wear my beloved contact lenses. It took a year of tedious and strict treatment with eye drops and eye compresses to get my eyes back to "normal"--meaning no pain or blurred vision. What a nightmare it was, though! I'll never forget the physical and emotional agony of suffering from this debilitating eye condition. At its worst, my eyes felt like they were impaled with thousands of tiny shards of jagged glass. My vision also blurred (from the dryness), which was terrifying. Am I going blind? Will my vision come back? Will this ever go away? I can still clearly remember doing some God/prayer "bargaining" during my most desperate moments. God, you can keep letting RA attack my hands and feet and other joints, but please leave my eyes alone. Don't take my eyes!
That feeling of impending doom
But let's get back to the impending doom of being infected with Lyme disease. What happened? Do I have it? Well, so far I do not have it. I made an appointment with my doctor as soon as I noticed the spot on my arm, yet if it was a tick bite, I had no clue how long it had been there (which was worrying). The doctor agreed that the rash on my arm looked odd, but she wasn't convinced it was from a tick. She also said that if an infected deer tick had bitten me there, I probably would have noticed it imbedded in that location on my arm--the inside of my forearm. You'd think I'd notice, but with my brain fog and general ditziness, I suppose I could have totally missed a tick body hanging out just below my elbow for at least 48 hours. Who knows! I certainly didn't remember getting bitten or bruised or anything.
To be safe and proactive, the doctor put me on a strong, one-day dose of doxycycline and had me go down to the lab to get blood drawn and tested for Lyme disease. A couple days later the result came back negative, thankfully. However, the doctor warned that it can take at least two weeks for results to show up if you were recently infected. Since then, I haven't experienced any strange or extra Lyme-like symptoms, and the weird "bite" spot on my arm has disappeared. Honestly, I kind of forgot all about it until I started to write this article. I'm realizing right now that I should probably follow up with the doctor to see if she wants me to get more lab work done or what her thoughts are about everything. Just add that to my never-ending medical to-do list! In the meantime, though, I will try hard to not freak out and be paranoid that I'm now afflicted with Lyme disease for the rest of my life.
Experiencing health anxiety with RA
I often joke about being paranoid, neurotic, and a self-diagnosed hypochondriac, but these anxious thoughts don't just come from nowhere. Experiencing the maddening unpredictability of RA for 21 years and feeling like anything and everything could potentially happen to me health-wise, it's understandable to be fearful what the future could bring. One terrible illness happened to me out of the blue and so could another, right? I try hard to not think about that possibility, though, and all of the "what-ifs" that could torment my mind. I can't live that way nor should I. But when strange and new health issues pop up in my life, I can't help but worry. I don't think I'm alone in feeling this way, either. We're all balancing on this precarious cliff of the state of our health. We can fall off at any moment--but if we do fall, we can also climb back up and keep living.
And, last but not least: Be careful of ticks! Make sure to take precautions around wooded areas (anywhere outside, really) and if you notice a tick on you or a bite, have your doctor check it out. Lyme disease is nothing to mess with.
When was your last flare?