Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a debilitating disorder characterised by extreme fatigue or tiredness that doesn’t go away with rest and can’t be explained by an underlying medical condition. CFS is also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) or systemic exertion intolerance disease (SEID).
In the past these illnesses have not been recognised as real medical conditions but this has now changed. There are thought to be around 250,000 people in the UK suffering from CFS. It can affect anyone though it is most common in women in their 40s and 50s.
What causes Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
Exactly what causes CFS is unknown. Researchers speculate that viruses, hypotension (unusually low blood pressure), a weakened immune system and hormonal imbalances could all be contributing factors.
It is also possible that some people are predisposed to develop the condition. Some cases have also been linked to traumatic events such as surgery or a serious accident.
What are the risk factors to take into consideration?
CFS is most common among people in their 40s and 50s. Gender also plays an important role as women patients outnumber men by nearly 2 to 1. Genetic predisposition, allergies, stress and environmental factors may also increase your risk.
What are the symptoms?
The most common symptom of chronic fatigue syndrome is persistent physical and mental exhaustion. This doesn’t go away with rest or sleep and is severe enough to interfere with your daily activities.
Exercising can make symptoms worse, with the effects sometimes not being felt until the day after. Other symptoms of CFS may include some of the following:
- Loss of memory or concentration
- Chronic insomnia and other sleep disorders
- Feeling unrefreshed after a night’s sleep
- Muscle or joint pain
- Severe and frequent headaches
- Frequent sore throat
- Painful or tender lymph nodes in your neck and armpits
- Stomach pain and other problems similar to irritable bowel syndrome such as bloating, diarrhoea, constipation and nausea
- Depression, irritability and panic attacks
- Sensitivity to loud noise, light, alcohol and certain foods
How is CFS diagnosed?
Chronic fatigue syndrome is a very challenging condition to diagnose. This results in a large proportion of its sufferers being undiagnosed. There are no lab tests to screen for the condition and its symptoms are common to many illnesses.
Many people with CFS don’t look obviously sick so doctors may not recognise that they are ill. If you see your GP about persistent and excessive fatigue, they should ask you about your medical history and may carry out a physical examination.
Ruling out other potential causes of your fatigue is a key part of the diagnosis process. Conditions with symptoms resembling those of CFS include:
Because the symptoms of CFS resemble those of other conditions, it is important not to self-diagnose but to talk to your doctor.
How does it affect your quality of life?
Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your condition may range from mild, whereby you are able to look after yourself but may need to take days off work to rest, to severe, when the extreme fatigue makes even everyday tasks difficult to perform.
People are sometimes affected by CFS in cycles, with periods of feeling exhausted followed by feeling better again. This cycle of remission and relapse can make it difficult to manage your symptoms.
Treating chronic fatigue syndrome
As each affected person has different symptoms, treatments vary but all aim to manage the disease and relieve the symptoms.
Home remedies and lifestyle changes
- Limit your caffeine and alcohol intake to ease your insomnia
- Create a sleep routine and try to avoid napping during the day
- Pace yourself during activities
- Avoid emotional and physical stress and try to limit anxiety
- Take time to relax and do something you enjoy
Therapies that may help
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you change the way you think and behave. It works by helping you cope and improve your mindset, enabling you to break down overwhelming problems into smaller parts.
Graded exercise therapy (GET) is a structured exercise programme which allows you to gradually increase the intensity of your exercise routine. This will be tailored to your own physical capabilities.
Medications to treat CFS symptoms
No medication can treat all your symptoms. Pain medication may help you cope with aches and joint pain caused by your CFS. Low dose antidepressants such as amitriptyline can be useful if you are in pain or have trouble sleeping.
This is not suitable for everyone and your GP will consider any possible side effects. Your GP may also consider prescribing a sleep aid if your lifestyle changes don’t give you a restful night’s sleep.
Alternative Medicine and Supplements
Acupuncture, yoga, tai chi and massage may help relieve your symptoms. Dietary supplements such as vitamin B12 and vitamin C have also been reported to help some sufferers.
Chronic fatigue syndrome may last a long time, but with treatment many people get better and regain fully functioning lives.
CFS progresses differently in different people so it is important to work with your doctor and a local support group if possible, to come up with a treatment plan that works for you.
For advice and information about CFS, ME and PVFS (Post-viral fatigue syndrome) you may like to visit the website of the ME Association. They aim to raise awareness of these debilitating conditions and offer support to the sufferers.
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