Chronic fatigue syndrome, or CFS, is a complex condition that can be debilitating. It is characterized by extreme fatigue that is not improved by resting and, in fact, can even be worsened by mental or physical activity. Symptoms affect multiple systems in the body that can include weakness, muscle pain, poor memory or concentration, and insomnia. All of these symptoms can result in a decreased desire to participate in daily activities.
It is not easy to diagnose chronic fatigue syndrome. Typically the severe fatigue lasts six months or more and the doctor must be able to rule out other possible medical explanations. Some other conditions that are similar to CFS are various sleep disorders, anemia, or depression. However, it is important to note that depression is a common symptom of the condition, but it isn’t the only cause of depression so a medical professional must rule it out as a primary cause of the tiredness.
While weakness, pain, and memory problems are most common, there are other symptoms to watch out for with chronic fatigue syndrome. These may include a sore throat and lymph nodes, pain in joints absent of inflammation, unusual headaches, and feeling generally run-down and ill for an entire day after you exert energy such as with exercise.
Extreme tiredness is typically the first symptom patients will experience with chronic fatigue syndrome, but some patients also report flu-like symptoms before they begin to notice long-term fatigue. The condition is also associated with other health issues such as anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and fibromyalgia.
Who is at risk for chronic fatigue syndrome?
CFS was first officially labeled in the 1980s and at the time was diagnosed more among men than women. Today it is much more common in women for largely unexplained reasons.
Experts also disagree on just how many people suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome and place the number anywhere between one and four million people in the United States alone. Doctors are also uncertain about cases of chronic fatigue syndrome that have gone undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. Children do develop CFS, but not as often as adults or teenagers.
What are the risk factors for chronic fatigue syndrome?
There is quite a bit of speculation about the risk factors and causes of chronic fatigue syndrome. Many researchers are dedicating their careers to studying the condition but no one has been able to determine a single cause for it. However, there are some theories about a possible origin.
One possible cause is an infection. A virus, such as the one that causes Epstein Barr, herpes, or the retrovirus XMRV have all been linked to chronic fatigue syndrome. Genetics may also play a role and some people are more susceptible due to a family history. There may be a cause based on how our brain, neurotransmitters, and hormones all work together. This is known as neuroendocrinology. It is also believed that an experience of surviving a traumatic event may trigger CFS in some patients. Because there are so many different ideas about the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome, doctors are often unable to provide an exact diagnosis or explanation for the experiences of the condition.
A closer look at the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome
We’ve already listed the most common symptoms but let’s take a closer look at each of them independently.
- Weakness: Someone with CFS will feel generally weak and unable to participate in physical activities or exert much energy.
- Muscle pain: They may begin to feel pain in their muscles that resembles soreness from physical activity.
- Memory issues: Many patients with chronic fatigue syndrome have issues with memory loss.
- Poor concentration: Similarly, difficulty concentrating on normal daily activities is common.
- Headaches: The onset of headaches that were abnormal for the patient prior to other symptoms of CFS being present is also common.
- Insomnia: In spite of the overall tiredness that a patient with CFS experiences, insomnia prevents them from having normal sleep cycles.
- Depression: Chronic fatigue syndrome can also cause depression and depression like symptoms, as well as anxiety, in individuals dealing with the condition.
- Sore throat: Pain in the throat is common and persistent.
- Swollen and painful lymph nodes: The lymph nodes in the neck and under the arms are sometimes swollen and painful to the touch.
- Painful joints: Patients with CFS can experience pain in the joints much like that of someone with osteoarthritis but without the redness or swelling.
- Overall malaise: Finally, the hallmark of CFS is referred to as “malaise” or an overall and constant run-down feeling like the symptoms common with the flu.
Treatments for chronic fatigue syndrome
Because CFS is difficult to diagnose and the exact causes are not known there is no single FDA approved treatment for the condition. Most doctors will take the approach to reduce or treat the symptoms in an attempt to allow an affected patient to live a more normal life.
A holistic approach for treating chronic fatigue syndrome patients may be one of the best solutions available today as it takes into account the entire body and mental health of each patient in a way that works for them individually.
A patient may discuss some options with their doctor including:
- Relaxation and meditation
- Modified yoga
It is important to recognize that these are not cures for CFS and the main goal is to instead alleviate the symptoms so there is less fatigue and pain throughout the day. Allowing for enough rest is also critical. Because overall tiredness and insomnia are common symptoms, it is easy to feel overly tired even with enough rest but that doesn’t mean that sleep should be ignored.
Chronic fatigue syndrome is unfortunately not a cut and dry diagnosis. Working with your doctor to determine the best possible treatments is essential and it will likely be different for each individual. However, a life with CFS doesn’t have to be limiting. Try a holistic approach to your treatment and focus on your entire mind, body, and spirit.
We want to hear from you: have you been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome? What approach have you found most successful for treating it?
Image by Bryan Rosengrant via Flickr