Although Lyme disease has a recognized treatment modality, antibiotics don’t always completely eradicate the disease. In addition, the long-term effects of Lyme disease can leave damage in nearly every part of the body.
People with Lyme disease often turn to alternative therapies for their lingering or most problematic symptoms, or as an adjunct to antibiotics. While these therapies have been used to treat other illnesses and conditions, they have not been formally approved for Lyme. And because there is little research on the efficacy of these therapies for Lyme disease, reports on their success, or lack of success, have been largely anecdotal – through Lyme bloggers, complementary physicians’ case reports, and discussions on Lyme forums.
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized room or tube. It is used to treat decompression sickness (for scuba divers who rise to the ocean’s surface too quickly), infections, carbon monoxide poisoning, and wounds that won’t heal as a result of diabetes or radiation injury. In a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, the air pressure is increased two to three times higher than normal air pressure. Under these conditions, the lungs absorb more oxygen than breathing pure oxygen at normal air pressure. Once the oxygen enters the bloodstream, it can help fight bacteria. The additional oxygen also stimulates growth factors and stem cells which promote healing.
In 1998, Drs. Fife and Freeman conducted a trial with hyperbaric oxygen therapy in which 91 Lyme disease patients completed a total of 1,995 treatments. 84.8% of the treated patients showed “significant improvement by a decrease or elimination of symptoms.” The drawback to the therapy was that all but one of the patients reported severe Jarisch-Herxheimer reactions (“herxing”). Furthermore, the authors reported that, in most cases, the reaction continued throughout the entire series of treatments, and in many instances continued for up to a month after the treatments were finished. On the positive side, the benefits of HBOT continued for eight months after treatment.
Authors Mitchell L. Hoggard and L. James Johnson have noted that Herxheimer reactions are specific to bacterial infections and that, while uncomfortable, they are an indication that bacteria are dying. In fact, some doctors use the severity of Herxheimer reactions to measure the effectiveness of their treatments. In addition to increasing the potency of antibiotics, Hoggard and Johnson point out that HBOT is most useful to enhance “certain aspects of the body’s natural immune system. This may play a significant and positive role for Lyme patients because their immune systems have probably been compromised over a long period of time as a result of persistent symptoms.”
The light emitting diode (LED) is an artificial light source that emits light across the visible spectrum as well as ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths. Because LED light has very low energy consumption, it is widely used for commercial applications, including digital clocks, traffic lights, street lights and anywhere illumination is required. LED light bulbs can be purchased for home use from most stores.
The initial medical research on LED light came from NASA. When biologists used LED light for plants grown on the Space Station, they discovered that cells exposed to near-infrared light from LEDs grew 150 to 200 percent faster than cells not stimulated by LED light. The same effect, they reasoned, might be true of human cells. In the first stage of a NASA-sponsored study, LEDs resulted in significant relief to pediatric bone-marrow transplant patients. Since then, FDA has approved LED light (also known as photostimulation) for acne, muscle and joint pain, sprains, infant jaundice, arthritis, and blood circulation.
LED light is being explored as a treatment for PTSD, brain injury, and exposure to neurotoxins. A study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma by Naeser et al. found that treatment with LED light has an effect on damaged brain cells, specifically on their mitochondria. After LED treatment, the study subjects showed improvement in executive function, verbal learning, and memory. The study participants also reported better sleep.
While there is an increasing amount of research being done on LED therapy for a variety of conditions, there is very little information on LED for Lyme disease. Nonetheless, LED treatment is being used by some alternative practitioners to treat neuroborreliosis and chronic Lyme disease. As FDA has approved limited application of LED medical devices, the most common type of therapy is via a mask. (Masks are normally used for acne. Handheld LED devices can be purchased online for the relief of minor aches and pains.) One Lyme patient, Better Health Guy, reported that LED therapy made him feel relaxed. There are currently no reports of overall improvement with LED therapy.
Intravenous Immunoglobulin (IVIG)
IVIG is the intravenous administration of antibodies (immunoglobulins) derived from blood. IVIG is used to treat a wide array of immune deficiencies, including Guillain-Barre syndrome, chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), multifocal motor neuropathy (MMN), myasthenia gravis, parvovirus B19 associated red cell aplasia, chronic lymphatic leukemia and post-bone marrow transplantation, primary antibody deficiency (PAD), vasculitis, systemic lupus erythematosis (SLE), Kawasaki syndrome, and dermatomyositis.
At the April 28, 2009 meeting of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), Dr. Amiram Katz, a physician at the Lambert Professional Center in Orange, Connecticut, presented a case study of 22 Lyme disease patients with post-treatment Lyme disease. All 22 patients were treated with IVIG 2 g/kg per month for at least 6 months. All patients improved with treatment.
In two other case studies (Majersjke et al., Crisp) IVIG was used to successfully treat patients with demyelinating polyneuropathy associated with Lyme disease. In both cases, patients had not responded to antibiotic therapy. Dr. Charles Ray Jones, a pediatric Lyme specialist, noted that while IVIG is expensive, it can result in a cure in patients for whom antibiotics have not been effective.
Plasmapheresis involves removing blood from the body, treating it, and returning components of blood plasma back to the body. Plasmapharesis is used to treat a wide variety of autoimmune diseases because autoantibodies can be removed from the blood, thereby reducing autoimmune reactions.
Plasmapheresis is an in-hospital procedure. It is not approved by FDA for treating Lyme disease, therefore the expense is not reimbursed. Some clinics may use plasmaphoresis for Lyme disease patients, particularly if subsequent or simultaneous autoimmune processes are suspected. As with other non-standard therapies, reports are highly mixed as to the success of the treatment. In one case study in a Norwegian patient, the authors concluded that plasmaphoresis was not useful against ongoing infection.
The Rife machine is named after Royal Raymond Rife (May 16, 1888 – August 5, 1971), an American inventor of a high-magnification microscope that could reputedly detect microbes too small to see with conventional technology. He posited that a beam could be used to destroy pathogens by “energetically exciting destructive resonances.”
The Rife machine can be used to direct electrical impulses at specific frequencies at any part of the body, commonly the hands and feet. During treatment, the patient uses wands attached to the Rife unit and places them close to the body. The frequencies generated by the machine are supposed to break up viruses, bacteria, and tumor cells.
While the FDA has not approved any electronic device, including Rife machines, for curing illnesses, Rife machines are freely available, and can be purchased online for between $600 and $2425. Insurance does not cover the cost. Some patients have reported good results, while others have reported severe reactions after using Rife machines. There are no scientific studies on the use of Rife machines as a treatment for Lyme.
Stem Cell therapy is a promising area of research. Because stem cells have unique regenerative abilities, they have the potential to treat chronic diseases, such as diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases, autoimmune disorders, and heart disease.
Lyme disease has a strong neurological component, and therefore stem cell therapy has been proposed as a possible treatment for post-treatment Lyme disease. The underlying assumption is that after the Lyme spirochete has been eliminated, continuing symptoms are the result of damage or an autoimmune process. If this assumption is correct, stem cells may help repair the damage.
The use of stem cell therapy for Lyme disease has not been approved by the FDA, which means patients usually have to travel abroad for treatment. Costs can amount to the tens of thousands. Because stem cell therapy is considered experimental, insurance companies do not reimburse. There are some practitioners in the U.S. who use stem cell therapy, but they are few and far between. Some Lyme disease patients report improvement with stem cell therapy, while others report a worsening of symptoms.
Essential oils (also known as volatile oils) are concentrated aromatic extracts of plants. Oil extracts of plants have been used for centuries for perfumes and for medicinal purposes. In modern times, they are primarily used in cosmetics, perfumes, soaps, and for flavorings.
While essential oils have not been adopted by conventional medicine, they have a long history of medicinal use, particularly as antimicrobials. These antiseptic properties have been investigated in recent years, primarily in response to the upsurge of resistant bacterial strains. In 2009, Warnke et al. published a study in which they showed that thyme white, lemon, lemongrass and cinnamon oil could inhibit antibiotic-resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). A 2014 study by Bialon et al. found that lemon essential oil was effective against Candida, the microbe that produces yeast infections. Devkatte et al. found that no less than 23 essential oils could inhibit Candida.
Essential oils are very powerful and, if taken orally, need to be taken by the drop. (One drop of oil should be added to a glass of water. If consumed undiluted, essential oils can burn the tongue and gums.) Some essential oils used for Lyme disease are oregano, thyme, clove, cassia, melissa, and melaleuca, all of which are reputed to have antibiotic properties.
Essential oils can be applied topically. A drop or two can be added to a tablespoon of oil and massaged into the feet, or added to a bath. (When you get out of the bath, the oil will cling to your skin.) Breathing essential oils is also effective. You can add a drop or two of oil to a cup of boiling water and breathe the steam, or you can add a drop to a home facial sauna kit (available in drug stores).
Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine
In traditional Chinese medicine, diseases are evaluated in terms of how they affect chi (also spelled Qi), or life energy. Illnesses can be classified as either predominantly “hot” (yang) or “cold” (yin), or a combination of the two.
Along with ME/CFS and fibromyalgia, Lyme disease is considered to be a disease in which chi has stagnated. To invigorate chi, and promote the body’s natural healing defenses, practitioners of Chinese medicine employ a number of techniques.
Moxibustion involves burning moxa, which is made from dried mugwort (Artemisia argyi). The herb is either burned in conjunction with acupuncture or burned directly on the skin. Moxibustion is believed to aid circulation, leading to the increased flow of blood and chi and alleviating conditions associated with the “cold” or “yang deficiencies.” Along with heat therapy, moxibustion has been used to treat Lyme disease symptoms such as cold extremities, exhaustion, congestion, cognitive impairments, pain, insomnia, and digestive problems.
While Chinese medicine does not have any herbs specific to the treatment of Lyme disease, there are similar infections, such as leptospirosis, for which herbal remedies have been administered. Some Chinese herbs that have antibiotic properties are: Isatis leaf, Smilax, Isatis root, Gardenia, Andrographis, Hu-chang, Coptis, Chien-li-kuang, Scute, Verbena, Phellodendron, Sanguisorba, Forsythia and Ching-hao.
Herbal remedies used by practitioners of Chinese medicine are normally compound formulations. Dr. Farah Khan recommends combinations that stimulate chi and increase circulation, such as San Qi, Mo Yao, Ru Xiang, Chuan Xiong, Dan Shen, Tao Ren, and Hong Hua. Dr. Khan also recommends warming herbs and tonics to fortify the body against ongoing infection.
Acupuncture is the Chinese practice of inserting very thin needles into certain points in the body to stimulate chi. Acupuncture has been the subject of research for decades. There are hundreds of studies in the pubmed database ranging from its use for menopausal symptoms to its role as an adjunct to surgery. Acupuncture has been used in animals, as well as in people. While it has been used for a variety of conditions, its most common application is to alleviate pain.
Acupuncture techniques for alleviating pain include the insertion of needles (it is painless), electro-stimulation of points, and massage of points (also referred to as acupressure). Patients with Lyme disease have reported both a lessening of pain after acupuncture treatment, and a worsening of symptoms.
Homeopathy is based on the principle of “like cures like” (similia similibus curentur). It was devised in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician and teacher. In his research on malaria, he decided to try a bit of Chinchona bark, the treatment for the disease. The bark produced symptoms similar to malaria, from which he concluded that substances that produced symptoms of specific diseases would serve as their most effective treatments.
Homeopathic remedies are highly diluted extracts of minerals, plants, and animal substances. Treatment is individually tailored, which means there is no universal homeopathic treatment for Lyme disease. A homeopath will assess a patient’s constellation of symptoms, and then recommend the homeopathic remedy, or combination of remedies, which best suit that individual.
While there are some accounts of patients who have reported that homeopathic remedies, such as Ledum, have helped alleviate symptoms there are none that have touted homeopathy as a cure. There are no scientific studies on the use of homeopathy in treating Lyme.
Resources and Further Reading
Acupuncture for Lyme ever make you worse? Thread on MD Junction discussing patient experiences with acupuncture.
Lyme Disease Alternative Therapies – a comprehensive list of articles, patient experiences, and practitioners of alternative therapies for Lyme disease.
An Overview of Lyme Disease and Hyperbaric Oxygen (HBO) Therapy – this paper by Mitchell L. Hoggard and L. James Johnson provides a good overview of Lyme disease, an excellent explanation of “herxing,” and the rationale for including hyperbaric oxygen therapy as an adjunct to antibiotics.
Hyperbaric Link – directories for HBOT centers, physicians, clinics, and general information.
Light Emitting Diode (LED) resources, Marshall Center Newsroom – press releases from NASA regarding medical use of LED light.
Light therapies for stimulating the immune system, stimulating the movement of lymph in the body, helping to treat pain and inflammation, stimulating blood flow and the formation of capillaries, stimulating wound healing, and stimulating the healing of jawbone cavitations – this is a massive list of resources for LED therapy, including vendors, articles, press releases.
Lyme Disease and Homeopathy by Stephen Tobin, DVM
Working with Essential Oils, an informative blog post by a Lyme disease patient on essential oils.
Dr. QingCai Zhang, Yale Zhang. Lyme Disease and Modern Chinese Medicine. Sino-Med Research Institute. March 1, 2006. A comprehensive book that combines traditional Chinese medicine and Western approaches. Lyme Disease and Modern Chinese Medicine.
Bialon M, Krzysko-Lupicka T, Koszalkowska M, Wieczorek PP. The influence of chemical composition of commercial lemon essential oils on the growth of Candida strains. Mycopathologia. 2014 Feb;177(1- FEMS Yeast Res. 2005 Jun;5(9):867-73. Epub 2005 Mar 14.
Devkatte AN, Zore GB, Karuppayil SM. Potential of plant oils as inhibitors of Candida albicans growth. FEMS Yeast Res. 2005 Jun;5(9):867-73. Epub 2005 Mar 14. doi:10.1007/s11046-013-9723-3. Epub 2014 Jan 12.
Bjark, Per H, Aakervik, Odd & Brorson, Øystein. Plasmapheresis as a Method to Reduce the Amount Of Borrelia-Specific Immune Complexes in Lyme Borreliosis. Vestfold Hospital, N-3103 Tønsberg, Norway.
David Crisp, MD, and Peter Ashby, MD. Lyme radiculoneuritis treated with intravenous immunoglobulin. Neurology April 1996 vol. 46 no. 4 1174-1175 doi: 10.1212/WNL.46.4.1174.
Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, Oregon. Lyme Disease: Treatment with Chinese Herbs.
Fife, William P; Freeman, DM (1998). “Treatment of Lyme disease with hyperbaric oxygen therapy”. Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society Annual Meeting. Abstract.
W. P. Fife, Ph. D. R. A. Neubauer, M. D. Hyperbaric Oxygenation for Lyme Vasculitis.
Huang CY, Chen YW, Kao TH, Kao HK, Lee YC, Cheng JC, Wang JH. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy as an effective adjunctive treatment for chronic Lyme disease. J Chin Med Assoc. 2014 May;77(5):269-71. doi: 10.1016/j.jcma.2014.02.001. Epub 2014 Apr 13.
Immunoglobulin Therapy for Lyme, Press Release.
Shigeharu Inouye, Toshio Takizawab and Hideyo Yamaguchia. Antibacterial activity of essential oils and their major constituents against respiratory tract pathogens by gaseous contact. J. Antimicrob. Chemother. (2001) 47 (5): 565-573. Immunoglobulin Therapy for Lyme. doi: 10.1093/jac/47.5.565.
S Jolles, WAC Sewell, and SA Misbah. Clinical uses of intravenous immunoglobulin. Clin Exp Immunol. 2005 Oct; 142(1): 1-11. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2249.2005.02834.x. PMCID: PMC1809480.
Katz, A. Diminished Epidermal Nerve Fiber Density in Patients With Antibodies to Outer Surface Protein A (OspA) of B. burgdorferi Improves with Intravenous Immunoglobulin Therapy. Abstract P02.021.
Cynthia Majerske, MD , Brad Dicianno, MD, Gargi Raval, MD, Ross D. Zafonte, DO, Sasa Zivkovic, MD. Poster 172: Return of muscle strength and function after use of intravenous immunoglobulin for Lyme disease-associated acute demyelinating polyneuropathy . Volume 84, Issue 9, September 2003, Pages E34-E35.
Margaret A. Naeser, Ross Zafonte, Maxine H. Krengel, Paula I. Martin, Judith Frazier, Michael R. Hamblin, Jeffrey A. Knight, William P. Meehan, Errol H. Baker. Significant Improvements in Cognitive Performance Post-Transcranial, Red/Near-Infrared Light-Emitting Diode Treatments in Chronic, Mild Traumatic Brain Injury: Open-Protocol Study. Journal of Neurotrauma, 2014; 31 (11): 1008 DOI: 10.1089/neu.2013.3244.
Omura Y, Beckman SL. Application of intensified (+) Qi Gong energy, (-) electrical field, (S) magnetic field, electrical pulses (1-2 pulses/sec), strong Shiatsu massage or acupuncture on the accurate organ representation areas of the hands to improve circulation and enhance drug uptake in pathological organs: clinical applications with special emphasis on the “Chlamydia-(Lyme)-uric acid syndrome” and “Chlamydia-(cytomegalovirus)-uric acid syndrome”. Acupunct Electrother Res. 1995 Jan-Mar;20(1):21-72.
Panama Stem Cell Therapy – Better Health Guy’s personal account of stem cell treatment for Lyme disease.
Pattnaik S, Subramanyam VR, Kole C. Antibacterial and antifungal activity of ten essential oils in vitro. Microbios. 1996;86(349):237-46.
Charles Pavia, Ph.D. Preliminary in vitro and in vivo Findings of Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment in Experimental Bb Infection – March, 2000. NY Medical College School of Medicine, NYCOM Microbiology and Immunodiagnostic Laboratory of NYIT.
Hanna Rhee and Daniel J Cameron. Lyme disease and pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections (PANDAS): an overview. Int J Gen Med. 2012; 5: 163-174. Published online 2012 Feb 22. doi: 10.2147/IJGM.S24212. PMCID: PMC329240
Warnke, PH; Becker, ST; Podschun, R; Sivananthan, S et al. (2009). “The battle against multi-resistant strains: Renaissance of antimicrobial essential oils as a promising force to fight hospital-acquired infections”. Journal of Cranio-Maxillofacial Surgery 37 (7): 392-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jcms.2009.03.017. PMID 19473851
Last Updated: 4/24/15