Like far too many pain conditions, chronic fatigue syndrome has no discernible cause and remains a medical mystery. For this reason it can be difficult to treat. It is characterized by extreme fatigue that is unexplainable by any known medical cause. It also doesn’t improve with rest as would be expected. So, what is chronic fatigue syndrome?
What is chronic fatigue syndrome?
Chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as CFS, is a complicated and debilitating condition. It’s characterized by fatigue that:
- Cannot be improved by rest
- Gets worse with mental and physical activity
The disorder was first named in the 1980s and at the time it was more common among men. Today, women receive the diagnosis much more frequently than men in general. There is also some debate about the official numbers of chronic fatigue syndrome patients in the U.S. It is believed to be anywhere between one and four million people suffer from the condition, including individuals who have gone undiagnosed. Children can develop CFS, but it is far less common than in adults or adolescents.
It is interesting to note that there has been a shift in the rates of diagnoses between the genders. In men it was frequently viewed as a result of working too hard while among women it was seen as a sign of emotional weakness. Thankfully, there have been changes in the way the medical community treats, diagnoses, and understands the condition.
One patient talks about her journey with chronic fatigue syndrome in the following video series.
What are chronic fatigue syndrome symptoms?
Chronic fatigue syndrome symptoms affect systems throughout the body. They can include:
- Muscle pain
- Memory or concentration problems
These symptoms can also lead to a lack of desire to participate in daily activities and depression.
Chronic fatigue syndrome also features several physical symptoms, which can include headaches, pain in the joints, and a sore throat. Many patients even feel flu-like symptoms at the onset of the condition which makes diagnosis difficult.
What causes CFS?
While we don’t know exactly what causes chronic fatigue syndrome there are a variety of theories that can help shed some light on the condition. Most scientists believe that individuals have a predisposition for developing the condition but it can also result after:
- A prolonged viral infection
- Issues with the immune system
- Hormonal changes
- Gut bacteria, according to recent research
One possibility is a viral infection. Viruses that cause herpes or Epstein Bar have been linked to chronic fatigue syndrome. Some patients may also be genetically predisposed to developing the condition due to a family history. There may also be causes related to the brain and the neurotransmitters and hormones that work together. Survivors of a traumatic event have also been known to develop chronic fatigue syndrome.
Because we don’t know the exact causes, determining the overall risk factors can also be a challenge. It is currently believed that the three biggest risk factors for chronic fatigue syndrome are:
- Stress levels
While chronic fatigue syndrome can occur at any age it is far more commonly found in people between the ages of 40 and 60. It is also more common in women but doctors also theorize that it is more likely to be discussed by women so many men may go undiagnosed. An inability to manage stress levels may also contribute to the development of the condition.
What are common complications?
The primary complications of chronic fatigue syndrome come from the overall lethargy that the condition causes. Many patients:
- Struggle with depression
- Keep themselves socially isolated
- Miss work due to the pain and exhaustion
The condition can feel imposing when it causes people to avoid the things in life they love the most. This is why treating the condition with a combination of physical and emotional therapy is so important.
How can I get a chronic fatigue syndrome diagnosis?
CFS is not easily diagnosed. Before a diagnosis can be made a patient must have experienced extreme fatigue for six months or more. The doctor must also be able to rule out all other medical explanations. Many conditions have a similar profile to CFS including:
- Sleep disorders
Once those are ruled out, you’ll have a better chance at getting a diagnosis.
What are chronic fatigue syndrome treatments?
Because of the varied ideas behind the cause of CFS, treatments can be difficult. There is currently no FDA approved treatment on the market. Most doctors will work with patients to determine the right therapies to relieve the symptoms and restore as normal a life as possible.
Chronic fatigue syndrome has different effects on different patients. Developing a customized treatment plan is the only successful option for most people living with the condition. There are a variety of treatments. The most common CFS treatments include:
- Medications for symptoms, such as antidepressants and sleep aids
- Other lifestyle changes
Among the therapies used to help with the condition a combination of exercise and counseling is the most effective. A physical therapist can help patients determine the best exercises and routines to help alleviate the physical pain and exhaustion.
Mental health support
Tthe condition does affect the mental health of patients as well so having a professional to talk to about concerns is essential.
Another way to help avoid social isolation and improve overall mental wellbeing is to seek out the company of a support group. Everyone who faces chronic fatigue syndrome will have a different experience but it is helpful to have people you can talk to who understand what you’re going through. Check in your community as well as online forums to find the right group of people for you.
There are also many things patients can do at home to help alleviate the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome and live a more normal life. Learning ways to reduce stress is essential as stress is known to exacerbate issues with the condition.
Getting better sleep can also help. While one of the hallmarks of the condition is excessive tiredness, good nighttime sleep patterns and routines can help patients function better during waking hours.
It is also critical for patients to know how to pace themselves when it comes to physical activity and not push too hard on days when they’re feeling well.
Is there any recent research on chronic fatigue syndrome?
Researcher continue to learn more about this puzzling condition. Below we talk about some of the more recent developments in its treatment and diagnosis. You can find even more updates on Science Daily.
Self-help exercise approach may reduce fatigue
Research published in The Lancet found that a self-help approach can help with a patient’s fatigue. It’s a safe alternative that focuses on graded exercises that slowly build up over time. This approach also allows patients to work on their treatment at home, with a specialist helping over the phone or Skype.
Dr Lucy Clark, lead author, Queen Mary University of London, UK, notes:
“We found that a self-help approach to a graded exercise program, guided by a therapist, was safe and also helped to reduce fatigue for some people with chronic fatigue syndrome, suggesting that GES might be useful as an initial treatment for patients to help manage symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome.”
CFS impact on society
In February of 2014 researchers at the KILDEN Information Centre for Gender Research in Norway wanted to determine why gender scales were completely tipping for patients diagnosed with CFS. Throughout history, chronic fatigue syndrome and similar conditions were seen among men much more often. Today, more women are being diagnosed than men with the condition.
Initially the condition was believed to be physical and neurological in origin. However, with the increased diagnoses among women, it is being classified more often as a psychological disorder. Researchers were finding that women seemed to believe that something they did in their lives caused the condition to worsen. Olaug S. Lian, a sociologist on the project, noted that:
“Long-term fatigue was viewed as a legitimate disorder, a result of the heroic efforts of the upper class male. Today, it is a stigmatizing disorder, understood as an expression of women’s lack of ability to cope with their lives, a kind of breach of character.”
So, what changed? Unfortunately the differing attitudes about the cause of chronic fatigue were likely due to systemic gender inequality in society at large. The Norwegian study was designed to demonstrate the different ways in which men and women are treated by medical science.
A different approach to treating chronic fatigue syndrome
During Halloween of 2013, the Age Management Medicine Group held their conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. There the subject of telomeres was discussed. A telomere is the cap on the end of a cell. Healthy individuals have longer telomeres. However individuals with shorter telomeres are more likely to have a chronic diagnosis such as chronic fatigue syndrome.
The conference asked the question whether or not testing for telomere size was still effective or if medical professionals should focus on methods to keep them longer and healthier instead.
Maintaining healthy telomeres involves a reduction of overall inflammation, balanced hormones, and healthy blood sugar. Patients with CFS or other chronic conditions are advised to stop drinking alcohol and smoking. They are also encouraged to maintain a healthy weight, and get enough sleep, and reduce stress. Much of this can be accomplished by adapting three things into everyday life: exercise, omega 3 fatty acids, and vitamin D supplementation.
An article by Paula Masso Carnes, a patient with chronic fatigue syndrome and Lyme disease as well as a teacher and biotech investment researcher, provides additional details from the conference.
She describes Dr. Robert Carroll discussion about ways to reduce inflammation. He suggested that removing iron from the body may provide some relief. He recommended supplements such as acetyl-l-carnitine and melatonin. Further, he also addressed growth hormones and the role they play in treating CFS. Growth hormone can keep the brain at a normal size, prevent illnesses of the digestive track, and strengthen muscles and bones.
What you can do if you suffer from CFS
So, what is chronic fatigue syndrome? It depends, for each and every patient. There is still a lot of research that needs to be done to determine a direct cause for chronic fatigue syndrome as well as treatments that are effective for patients across the board. If you have CFS you may wish you speak with your doctor about new studies and treatments that can help you maintain a healthier lifestyle.
Because of the complex nature of the condition, it may also be essential to take every possible action to help maintain a healthy balance. Holistic and pharmaceutical therapies may both play into increased relief from chronic fatigue syndrome.
You may also wish to join a support group in your area or online. Depression is common among individuals with a chronic fatigue syndrome diagnosis, so discussing the condition with others who experience similar symptoms may be an important source of strength.
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