The Mysterious History of Lyme Disease (And How Functional Medicine Approaches It)


Dr. Aaron Hartman

June 17, 2021

A red and black tick on a green leaf

After a long winter, we always look forward to summer. Warm weather is here, and all of us enjoy as much time as possible in the great outdoors. Fresh air, sunshine, tall grass, beautiful views—what’s not to love? Ticks and the looming possibility of Lyme Disease, that’s what. We’re going to take a dive into this mysterious illness and the history of Lyme Disease to look at it from a functional medicine perspective.

(Side note: If it’s summertime and you’ve been outside and you feel achy and have a temperature with no respiratory symptoms, go see your Functional Medicine doc. This is a time when people should not be getting flu-like illnesses. It’s also a time when ticks are on the prowl and people are outside enjoying themselves, and most people won’t remember a tick bite!  If you want to read a little more about tick bites, I recently contributed to an article on the topic on health.com)

Lyme Disease has definitely begun to be more recognized in the mainstream over the past couple of decades (mostly thanks to a handful of celebrities who have gone public with their own struggles). But, for the most part, Lyme Disease remains an ailment that has been shrouded by mystery since its discovery over three hundred years ago—and traditional medicine almost seems to be turning a blind eye to those who suffer from this tick-borne illness.

Traditional Medicine Lyme Disease Experts: Do They Exist?

After finishing my military commitment, I moved to Richmond, Virginia back in 2007—and was promptly smacked in the face with several cases of Lyme Disease. I desperately wanted to do what was best for my patients, so I called the local infectious disease specialist for a referral for a Lyme Disease specialist. I was promptly told that they did not take consults for Lyme Disease, because there was no Lyme Disease in the Central Virginia area. I was shocked.

I proceeded to call the local academic medical college for a consultation, but my calls were never returned. I was on my own.

I started to learn all the nuances of Chronic Lyme Disease, Post Lyme Syndrome and, later, Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome. I’ve taken on educating myself as much as I possibly can about the history of Lyme disease and its causes and symptoms as part of my own personal functional medicine journey over the past 14 years—and, wow, do I ever know why this is referred to as the “practice” of medicine.

We tend to think medical progress is this quick thing that happens overnight. Yet the reality for most medical progress is that it is a slow process that requires the input of many individuals over much time. It even took several decades for hand washing, introduced by Ignaz Semmelweis, to catch on. Lyme Disease is a paradigm for the progress of medicine and how there are always a few pushing the limits of our medical understanding. And it is one of the many current controversies in medicine.

Here’s a little look at the history and evolution of what we know about Lyme Disease.

A Timeline Of Modern Medicine Case Study: History Of Lyme Disease

Timeline of Lyme Disease
  • 1638 – Description of ticks on bushes and then attaching to people in New England
  • 1749 – New York Forest noted to abound with ticks
  • 1764 – Arthritis from Lyme Disease first described
  • 1883 – First case studies in Germany
  • 1909 – Rash of Lyme Disease described and named erythema migrans
  • 1920 – Neurological symptoms described
  • 1975 – Full syndrome of Lyme disease described after cluster outbreak in Lyme, Connecticut, this is where the name originates from. In 1975, a woman brought an unusual cluster of pediatric arthritis cases to the attention of Yale researchers
  • 1982 – The spirochete borrelia burgdorferi identified as the cause for Lyme Disease
  • 2010 – DNA sequence for Lyme found in Otzi the Iceman dating from 3300 B.C.
  • 2020 – Controversy over diagnosis and treatment for Lyme disease continues

Looking Forward

In medicine, we must stay open—especially when it comes to illnesses that we know so little about (like Lyme Disease). We have to stay inquisitive and—most importantly—we have to keep listening to our patients. Our patients are the ones who are suffering and who we are responsible for.

Find out more about our online functional medicine doctor community.

In this age of high-tech, evidenced-based medicine, a myopic view is often taken. Again and again, modern medicine often misses the forest for the trees and overlooks what is right in front of us. This one-sided view that looks at the “disease” and not the person is what turned me towards functional medicine. Functional medicine is a holistic, science-based specialty that puts the patient first—yet recognizes the nuances of the limitations to what we know and all that we do not know.

Taking this approach enabled me to better understand the history behind Lyme Disease and its origins—and also helps me enable my patients with Lyme Disease to thrive.

To learn more about Functional Medicine visit our education page on the Richmond Integrative & Functional Medicine homepage.

Since 2010, Richmond Integrative and Functional Medicine has been helping people to restore their health and hope with an integrative approach to conventional and alternative medicine that’s entirely science-backed. We at RIFM believe everyone is made for health. We offer a comprehensive, in-person patient membership program to ensure you get access to the care you need to thrive.

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