Chronic fatigue syndrome

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) or myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) is a complex disorder whose hallmark is extreme fatigue not due to exertion or underlying medical conditions and which is not relieved by resting.

Medical experts have yet to understand the causes of ME, but in some cases the disorder sets in after a viral illness, which has put this in the spotlight as a potential trigger.

Other proposed risk factors for chronic fatigue syndrome are sex (statistics indicate that CFS is reported more often in women than men), age (it occurs primarily in people in their 40s and 50s) and there may also be a genetic link.

What are its symptoms?

Chronic fatigue syndrome symptoms include:

  • Extreme fatigue (that is, persisting or relapsing fatigue that is not relieved by rest lasting six months or more)
  • Difficulty concentrating or impaired memory
  • Prolonged exhaustion after exertion
  • Sleep problems and rest that is not refreshing
  • Pain, which is persistent and can move from one area to another, including joint pain without swelling or redness, muscle aches, headaches (particularly of a new pattern or severity)
  • Enlarged, tender lymph nodes
  • Frequent sore throat

While these are the symptoms used for diagnosis, sufferers may also experience:

How is it diagnosed?

There is no test for chronic fatigue syndrome. A doctor will usually conduct a physical examination, conduct a thorough medical history and may order other screening tests in order to rule out other conditions that may present with similar symptoms. Chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, for example, present very similarly.

A chronic fatigue syndrome diagnosis usually requires the presence of the characteristic exhaustion that interferes with the activities of daily life and at least four other symptoms that have been ongoing for a period of six months or more.

What are your treatment options?

There is no cure for chronic fatigue syndrome. Treatment is complex and may vary from one sufferer to the next.

A multidisciplinary approach, with input from doctors experienced in treating the condition and mental healthcare practitioners may be necessary to create a programme focused on providing relief for the symptoms, management techniques and coping with the tasks of daily life.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and antidepressants can play a role in managing the psychological aspect of the disease. It is important for sufferers to pace themselves to avoid over-exertion – recognising when to stop and rest is essential.

Can it be prevented?

It is not possible to prevent chronic fatigue syndrome. It is hoped that as more light is shed on its exact causes, this fact may change.

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in June 2015