By Jennifer Crystal
Skiing has always been part of my life. I went to a college in Vermont that had its own ski run. After graduation, I moved to Colorado to teach high school, and to become a ski instructor. It was supposed to be the high point of my life, and in many ways it was, but there were also some very low points because I was wrestling with undiagnosed tick-borne illnesses.
One such low found me on the bathroom floor, writhing in pain from an excruciating migraine. The throbbing started over my left eye, working its way up over that side of my head and around the back to my neck. I felt as if my brain was going to explode out of my skull.
“It’s probably from the altitude,” a doctor later told me. In the years since I had started developing strange symptoms—fever, joint aches, exhaustion, hand tremors, hives—I grew accustomed to doctors writing them off with a simple explanation.
But altitude was not causing my migraines. In fact, I was suffering from Lyme disease, Ehrlichia, and Babesia, the last being a tick-borne parasite that consumes oxygen in red blood cells. Due to these infections, a scan would later show that I was not getting enough oxygen to the left side of my brain. Living at a high altitude certainly didn’t help this situation, but the root cause was the fact that my oxygen levels were already compromised by infection.
Babesia is not the only tick-borne disease that can cause headaches; so can Ehrlichia and relapsing fevers. But with or without co-infections, the vast majority of Lyme disease patients complain of headaches as a chief symptom, with pain ranging from moderate to severe. Many patients, myself included, have encountered migraines so debilitating they’re relegated to bed in a dark room due to pain, light sensitivity and nausea. Though tick-borne diseases can cause pain throughout the cranium, migraines are usually focused to one side. As a child, I had four surgeries to correct weak muscles in my eyes, especially on the left, leaving scar tissue over that eye. I later learned that Lyme bacteria, spirochetes, like to hide out in scar tissue, which may explain why my migraines always started over that eye.
So why are headaches so common for Lyme patients? Spirochetes can enter the central nervous system by crossing the blood-brain barrier. This barrier is supposed to protect the brain from infection, but spirochetes are tricky and swift and can coil their way across, causing headaches for their victims.
Lyme is an inflammatory disease, so once spirochetes enter the central nervous system, they cause swelling there. In his book Why Can’t I Get Better? Solving the Mystery of Lyme & Chronic Disease, Dr. Richard Horowitz equates this inflammation to a fire that ignites heat, redness, pain, and loss of function. Feeling like my brain was going to explode out of my skull was not really hyperbole; my head was indeed swollen, but I just couldn’t see it the way I would be able to if I’d had a swollen ankle or knee.
At my lowest points of illness, I got migraines several times a week. I tried to try to push through the pain. I wanted to be living my life, teaching and skiing. But I always paid a high price for not listening to my body—or in this case, to my brain. Ignoring the headache only increased the pain, sometimes sending me to bed for two or three days at a time. I got prescription medication, which I learned to take as soon as I felt a headache coming on, rather than trying to wait it out. I also found that staying hydrated, eating foods rich in iron, and stretching gently—to help increase blood flow—sometimes helped alleviate my headaches.
The best treatment, however, was rest. If you have a swollen ankle or knee, you stay off that joint, giving it time to heal. The same is true for your brain. Your head needs time to recover from inflammation, and nothing has helped that process more for me than sleep. Though I rarely get migraines these days, I still get pressure on the left side of my head when I get tired or neurologically overwhelmed. I never want to spend a day in bed, but one is better than being there for several days—and it’s certainly better than writhing on the bathroom floor. A day spent recuperating means more days on the slopes, and I’ll take as many of those as I can get.
 Horowitz, Richard I. Why Can’t I Get Better? Solving the Mystery of Lyme & Chronic Disease. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2013. (186)
Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.
Jennifer Crystal is a writer and educator in Boston. She is working on a memoir about her journey with chronic tick-borne illness. Do you have a question for Jennifer? Email her at email@example.com
Infection driven inflammation is the name of the game here and anything you can do to lower both will help the headaches.
Since this was a major thorn for me my quest for relief has led me to numerous modalities. One is systemic enzymes:
My husband nearly destroyed his liver taking Ibuprofen for Lyme/MSIDS pain.
The other is ruling out Chiari and/or any other physical causes: https://madisonarealymesupportgroup.com/2016/04/02/chiari/ Normally Chiari is thought of as a congenital abnormality; however, within 1 week I met 3 people with a MSIDS diagnosis who also have Chiari. Coincidence? Brain infections can cause it.
Next down the rabbit hole is MSM (a derivative of DMSO – without the smell): https://madisonarealymesupportgroup.com/2018/01/03/the-invisible-universe-of-the-human-microbiome-msm/ MSM stands for Methylsulfonylmethane and is 34% sulfur by weight. Sulfur plays a crucial role in detoxification and is an important antioxidant for producing glutathione. It has been used for decades for pain and inflammation.
There are also MSM creams – but beware and do your reading. Many have toxic additives and perfumes.
And then of course, DMSO:
I promised I would write an in-depth article on both DMSO and its derivative MSM but there’s a lot to read! I have personally tried both with excellent results. MSM is as safe as water but please read about it in the link above as the process in which it’s made is important.
As to DMSO, it’s safe as well but since it’s a solvent (penetrating agent) it demands scrupulous attention to detail, plus you may not enjoy the garlic/oyster smell it gives. You also need to find pure DMSO.
http://www.alternative-medicine-digest.com/dmso.htmlOver 100,000 articles have been written about medical DMSO uses. In 1963, when the FDA approved human testing, all studies showed it to be safe and non-toxic. One study revealed changes in the lens of the eye in specific lab animals; however, when a number of human studies were done around the world in the late sixties, no human eye damage was found.
After two human studies done on human volunteers in prison, Dr. Richard Brobyn stated: “A very extensive study of DMSO use was conducted at three to 30 times the usual treatment dosage in humans for three months. DMSO appears to be a very safe drug for human administration, and, in particular, the lens changes that occur in certain mammalian species do not occur in man under this very high, prolonged treatment regimen. I am very glad to be able to present these data at this time, so that we can permanently dispel the myth that DMSO is in any way a toxic or dangerous drug.”
So far I’m taking 1/2 tsp of MSM crystals in water twice a day. All pain gone. POOF! If there is any pain ever, I use a DMSO gel topically on the specific area of pain – typically the base of my skull. Within minutes, pain gone. POOF!
Please read about DMSO before trying as it burns and itches for a spell. Do not itch it. You also need to read about concentrations as some are too strong for topical application. I use the 70% DMSO gel. Some are more sensitive and need a lower percentage. It also has a lovely smell to it – but hey, I’ll smell like an oyster any day than deal with the pain! Also, hands and anything DMSO touches has to be scrupulously clean. It must dry (takes about 20-30 min) before putting any clothing on it as the dyes, etc will go into your body.
I’ve called numerous places to find out what the ingredient (such as rose smell) is in certain DMSO creams. I’m not getting straight answers so I’m not using it. I’d rather deal with the smell than introduce yet another foreign substance into my body.
Of course the question begs to be asked, “Would taking liquid DMSO internally aid with getting antimicrobials/antivirals deeper into the body?” My hunch is yes, if you can stand the smell.
Stay tuned. More to come.