Lyme arthritis is one of the most recognizable of the many chronic Lyme Disease symptoms. Age doesn’t seem to matter, and neither does species: the arthritis occurs in children and adults alike, and in both humans and dogs — the other species that bears the brunt of LD.

Let’s take a closer look at this painful problem, from a purely human perspective.


Lyme arthritis is one of the most diagnostic LD symptoms, and was instrumental in identifying the disease in the first place.

Back in the 1970s, a Yale University group led by Dr. Allen Steere (who, ironically, is best known for his dismissal of chronic Lyme as a real medical problem) identified an unusual cluster of pediatric arthritis cases in the vicinity of Lyme, Connecticut.

Steere’s group eventually recognized the disease as an American expression of a type of tick-borne meningoencephalitis (a swelling of the brain and brain lining) already known to occur in Europe. They named it Lyme Disease, after the town, and their research triggered a flurry of further work.

Eventually, Dr. Willy Burgdorfer, a Swiss-American scientist, isolated the causative agent that bears his name: the corkscrew-shaped bacterium known as Borrelia burgdorferi. But it all started with the arthritis.

Lyme Arthritis Defined

chronic lyme disease symptoms arthritis

Lyme arthritis is very similar to standard osteoarthritis, and is sometimes mistaken for rheumatoid arthritis.

Lyme arthritis is very similar to standard osteoarthritis, and is sometimes mistaken for rheumatoid arthritis. It typically doesn’t strike until the late disseminated stage of LD, when the patient has had the disease for months or years, and may occur even after the patient has undergone antibiotic treatment.

The result is a stiff, swollen joint — often the knee, but not always. Sometimes the joint turns red, and there may be fluid build-up. The episode is usually brief, and limited to one joint; occasionally it occurs in corresponding joints on both sides of the body, but this is rare. It may also switch sides suddenly.

In addition to the knees, the hips, ankles, elbows, and wrists can also by stricken by Lyme arthritis. The arthritis comes and goes, sometimes accompanied by a fever. If left untreated, the infection can permanently damage the joint cartilage.

What’s Happening Here?

Most physicians agree that Lyme arthritis results when Borrelia spirochetes enter the cartilaginous tissue of a joint. With their tough corkscrew shape, they’re uniquely suited to bore into the cartilage. The resulting inflammation (as with other symptoms) is most due to the toxic waste products they produce.

Some doctors blame the arthritis on autoimmune reactions in the post-infection phase, especially when it occurs after standard antibiotic treatment. As discussed in an earlier article, a Borrelia infection may be able to short circuit the body’s immune system so that it later attacks its own cells, thinking they’re Borrelia.

That said, some researchers have photographed Borrelia spirochetes in cartilage cells, and others have cultured them from cartilaginous tissues.

What’s the Treatment?

Lyme arthritis usually responds well to aggressive antibiotic treatment. In most cases, oral antibiotics, especially doxycycline, are sufficient. In extreme cases, you may need an intravenous course of ceftriaxone or penicillin to effectively treat the infection.

For the pain, expect to receive prescription non-steroidal inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Tylenol, backed up with ibuprofen and aspirin. Other palliative treatments may include a draining of joint fluid called a “joint aspiration,” and even the surgical removal of the inflamed joint lining.

Lyme arthritis episodes typically pass within a few weeks — but don’t expect the arthritis to go away completely until you completely kick your LD infection. As one of the chief chronic Lyme DiseaseĀ  symptoms, it’s not going to give up without a heck of a fight.