Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Still a Mystery
Imagine feeling bone-tired for months, no matter how much sleep you get.
Picture being able to accomplish only half as much each day as you used to--with nothing obvious to account for your exhaustion. That's life for people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome.
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a condition marked by excessive, prolonged fatigue that is not lessened with rest or caused by another condition. It is three to four times more common in females than males. It strikes people of all age, racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
There is no single test for diagnosing chronic fatigue syndrome. Establishing that a patient suffers from chronic fatigue requires a thorough physical examination and testing to rule out any of the many other possible causes for the classic symptoms.
Symptoms of chronic fatigue include sore throat, extreme fatigue, muscle and joint aches, a type or pattern of headaches that is new to you, sleep disturbances, memory problems, and depression. A psychological evaluation is also an important component in evaluating the illness. Symptoms vary, but all people with CFS suffer at least six months of extreme fatigue that can't be explained. The extreme fatigue causes them to dramatically cut back on normal activities.
The cause of CFS remains a mystery. No single agent has been identified as responsible for the illness, although a number of suspected causes are being studied. Researchers think there are several contributing factors involved.
Some people with CFS may have immune system problems. Experts are also looking at changes in hormones produced by the brain and problems with central and peripheral nervous system response.
Although there's no cure for chronic fatigue, symptoms such as muscle aches and sleep disturbances can be managed once a patient is diagnosed.
Treatment varies from person to person. For example, a person with muscle pain and sleeping disorders may respond well to extremely low doses of antidepressants. A person who has an immune system problem may need medication that targets the immune response.
Exercise helps most people with CFS. But it's important not to overdo it.
For patients with chronic fatigue, coping with their condition usually means eliminating unnecessary activities, and setting priorities so that the most important tasks can be done with the energy they have available.
Improvement with time
Usually, patients are fatigued for a couple of years before they begin to improve. Often it is obvious that a patient is starting to get better when he or she starts to have enough energy to feel angry about being fatigued and having life disrupted. It's important to understand that recuperation takes time.
Research has shown that the immune system remains activated for long periods of time in people with CFS.
Many of these abnormalities seem to come and go, and are not permanent conditions. Furthermore, not all of the abnormalities affect every person with CFS.
- Berry, Judith, PhD, APRN
- newMentor board-certified, academically affiliated clinician