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What is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?

Chronic fatigue syndrome, also called myalgic encephalomyelitis, is a serious, long-term illness marked by profound tiredness, unrefreshing sleep, cognitive troubles, and intolerance to sitting or standing upright. Post-exertional malaise (PEM) is central to this condition. This means that symptoms get worse with physical or mental activity that go beyond a certain threshold (called the energy envelope).

The syndrome affects many body systems. You may become unable to carry out your usual activities and maybe even confined to bed at times.

What causes chronic fatigue syndrome?

The cause of the syndrome is not known. It can happen suddenly and last for years.

Who is at risk for chronic fatigue syndrome?

Because the cause is not known, it’s hard to know what might put someone at risk for getting the condition. However, certain factors are seen more often in people with the syndrome. These factors include:

  • Gender. Woman are up to 4 times more likely to have it than men.

  • Age. It commonly affects middle-aged people, but people of any age can get it.

  • Combat deployment. The syndrome is more common among service members and Veterans who were deployed to combat than those who were not deployed to combat.

According to an Institute of Medicine report published in 2015, an estimated 836,000 to 2.5 million Americans suffer from the syndrome, but most of them have not been diagnosed.

What are the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome?

The following are the most common symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue and decreased energy

  • Unrefreshing sleep

  • Post-exertional malaise (period of intense exhaustion and a spike in other symptoms that lasts for more than 24 hours following physical exertion)

  • Orthostatic intolerance (inability to sit or stand up)

  • Sore throat

  • Headache

  • Tender lymph nodes

  • Muscle and joint pain

  • Problems with memory and concentration

  • Chills and night sweats

  • Digestive symptoms, like irritable bowel syndrome

The symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome may look like other medical conditions. Always talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is chronic fatigue syndrome diagnosed?

The syndrome is diagnosed based on several criteria:

  1. Decrease in function. The intensity of the fatigue and lack of energy leads to a big decrease in function.

  2. Duration. The symptoms and decreased function continue for at least 6 months.

  3. Post-exertional malaise and unrefreshing sleep. The symptoms get worse after physical or mental activity and do not get better with bed rest.

  4. Cognitive problems and/or orthostatic intolerance.  Memory or concentration is impaired (brain fog) or gets worse when sitting or standing.

How is chronic fatigue syndrome treated?

A specific treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome has yet to be proven effective. Many treatments just relieve the symptoms of the syndrome and should be discussed with your healthcare provider.

Treatment is determined by your healthcare provider and based on:

  • Your overall health and medical history

  • Extent of the condition

  • Your tolerance for specific medicines, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the condition

  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • Medicines targeting symptom relief

  • Light-intensity aerobic exercise that doesn’t go beyond your energy envelope or the threshold at which you experience post-exertional malaise 

  • Psychotherapy to help manage symptoms and supportive counseling

Living with chronic fatigue syndrome

There is currently no cure for chronic fatigue syndrome. Dealing with the severe fatigue can be very challenging. It is important that you work with your healthcare team to find treatments that help you. Some people find counseling or support groups helpful.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

If your symptoms get worse or you have new symptoms, let your healthcare provider know.

Key points about chronic fatigue syndrome

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome is characterized by profound tiredness and lack of energy.

  • Symptoms get worse with physical or mental activity.

  • In addition to severe fatigue, symptoms include inability to sit or stand, headache, muscle and joint pain, difficulty concentrating, tender lymph glands, chills, and night sweats.

  • Treatment should be discussed with your healthcare provider and may include medicines, carefully controlled physical activity, supplements, and counseling.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your healthcare provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your healthcare provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your healthcare provider if you have questions.

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 1/1/2018
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