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A young woman with undiagnosed Lyme disease gradually weakened until she couldn't hold a toothbrush — and eventually needed 16 joint surgeries

INSIDER logo INSIDER 2 days ago amichelson@insider.com (Andrea Michelson)
FILE PHOTO: A doctor attends to a patient's knee replacement bandage. Jodi Jacobson/Getty Images © Jodi Jacobson/Getty Images FILE PHOTO: A doctor attends to a patient's knee replacement bandage. Jodi Jacobson/Getty Images
  • Megan Bradshaw didn't know she had Lyme disease for several years.
  • The tick-borne infection can cause joint pain and chronic fatigue if left untreated.
  • Bradshaw, 29, needed both shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles replaced due to the damage.

At age 23, Megan Bradshaw could barely hold a toothbrush. Her mother had to help her with everyday tasks like getting dressed, and soon, the young college graduate needed a wheelchair to move around.

Despite her debilitating joint pain and chronic fatigue that worsened through her early 20s, Bradshaw did not receive a full diagnosis for several years after her symptoms started. She desperately searched for an explanation and was finally diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2019, TODAY reported.

Lyme disease is a disease spread by the bites of infected blacklegged ticks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most cases of Lyme disease can be resolved with antibiotics, but the infection can reach the joints, heart, and nervous system if it's not treated.

While she was searching for answers and navigating misdiagnoses, Bradshaw's infection had permanently damaged her joints. She would need 16 surgeries to repair and replace the affected joints, including total joint replacements in both shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles.

The 29-year-old donated five of her joints to Lyme disease research, and she's hoping to raise awareness about the dangers of tick bites and how to avoid them.

She searched for a diagnosis for years

Bradshaw remembers tiredness, episodes of fainting, and joint pain that intensified throughout her college years, she told TODAY.

A doctor diagnosed her with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) when she was 23, although it wasn't a perfect fit for her symptoms. She didn't have the swelling that's typically seen with RA — just joint pain so bad she couldn't walk or care for herself.

Still, doctors started her on several medications to treat RA. Bradshaw said she was excited to finally have a diagnosis, and she also changed her diet and cut out alcohol to improve her health. The treatments seemed to help her regain some mobility, but the pain persisted.

"I was doing everything, all the right things, to try to help myself and reduce my inflammation," Bradshaw told TODAY. "This pain in my body was just so widespread and we couldn't figure out where the heck it was coming from."

Lyme disease can cause severe complications if not treated

Bradshaw was finally diagnosed with Lyme disease when she was 26 — three years after her RA misdiagnosis.

At that point, the damage to her joints was so severe that she could not open her hands, which were permanently curled into fists. She would need surgery to fuse her fingers with metal rods to keep them in an open, curved position, and even then, she only regained about 70% of her hand function.

Dr. Glenn Gaston, a hand specialist who operated on Bradshaw, told TODAY that her case of Lyme disease was the worst one he's ever seen. Normally, if the infection progresses to cause Lyme arthritis, it affects one or two joints — most often the knees.

"There's never been a patient in a textbook or an article that I've seen that is anywhere close to hers," he told the outlet of Bradshaw's case. 

Lyme arthritis may affect up to 1 in every 4 people diagnosed with the tick-borne infection, according to the CDC. However, because Lyme disease is widely underreported and misdiagnosed, it's often the most severe cases that get counted in surveillance data.

Bradshaw also found out that she had a connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which may have compounded her pain. She said she hopes her case, however extreme, will help raise awareness about Lyme disease and other often-misdiagnosed conditions.

"While it's extreme, my story really highlights a lot of the things that other people experience, like delayed diagnosis and misdiagnosis and having a general unawareness of the dangers of ticks," she told TODAY.

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