A person who has chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) feels weak and enervated much or all of the time and may have difficulty performing daily tasks—even those that are routine and undemanding. Having difficulty sleeping and finding it hard to concentrate are also common symptoms.
No specific cause has been linked to CFS, and because the symptoms associated with CFS are connected to many other disorders, it is difficult to establish a diagnosis. Generally, according to guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the problem isn’t considered to be CFS unless severe fatigue and other symptoms have interfered with the ability to work and function for at least six months.
Those who are most likely to develop the problem are 25 to 45 years old, but CFS can occur at any age. In the United States about 80 percent of those diagnosed with CFS are women, for reasons that aren’t understood. (It may be that women have simply reported the problem more often than men.) A majority of those who report having the problem are allergy sufferers.
While there are anecdotal reports of increased rates of other illnesses (such as cancer and multiple sclerosis) among those with CFS, there is no evidence to support these claims.
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Symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Recurrent flu-like symptoms, including fever, sore throat, chronic headache, nausea, muscle pain and joint pain
- Severe, debilitating fatigue that is not relieved by rest or sleep and is worsened by exercise (exercise intolerance)
- Loss of memory or difficulty concentrating
- Depression and irritability
What Causes Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
Researchers have tried to pin down a cause, but the goal has proved elusive. In the early 1980s the disorder was called Epstein-Barr syndrome because most chronic sufferers were found to be infected with the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis. However, since then many people complaining of CFS symptoms show no sign of the virus, and many healthy people have been exposed to the virus with no ill effects. There is no evidence, in fact, that CFS is caused by any virus or that it is contagious.
According to another theory, people with this syndrome have an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system reacts (or overreacts) to a perceived threat (such as a virus) by attacking otherwise healthy tissues. This has led to CFS also being referred to as chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome, or CFIDS.
Some researchers also think that emotional and psychological factors play a role in causing or exacerbating CFS.
What If You Do Nothing?
Most people who have CFS recover, with or without treatment; symptoms disappear and normal levels of activity can eventually be resumed. But recovery can take months or even years. The course of the illness varies greatly among individuals, and often the presence of symptoms follows a cyclical pattern, with periods of illness alternating with periods of relatively good health.
Chronic Fatigue and Alternative Remedies
Claims have been made for a number of treatments for CFS, including herbal preparations, liver extract, antiviral drugs, vitamins, and infusions of immunoglobulin. Many of these therapies are either untested or haven’t been confirmed when subjected to scientific study, so that positive responses may be due to a placebo effect rather than to an effective therapy.
It’s important to discuss with your doctor any alternative remedies you pursue. Many may be harmless, but some unproven treatments can have adverse effects. More important, there is a danger that someone who has never been formally diagnosed as having CFS may actually have a much more serious underlying disorder. In that case alternative therapies are a poor, and possibly dangerous, substitute for getting a thorough physical examination and a proven course of treatment.
Home Remedies for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
There is no cure for CFS, but a few measures may provide relief.
- Take it easy—but not too easy. Get plenty of rest and try not to overexert yourself, since doing so can aggravate symptoms. But do try to stay physically active and perform some light exercise.
- Try over-the-counter pain relievers. Aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen can relieve joint pain and headaches and reduce fever.
- Contact support groups and hotlines. There are growing numbers of groups that offer psychological support and information about CFS. Some publish newsletters that describe recent research efforts, offer advice about how to cope with the illness, and list doctors who are experienced in diagnosing and treating CFS.
- Eat a healthy diet. People with CFS should avoid heavy meals, caffeine, alcohol and junk food. A healthy diet can help minimize general discomfort and other symptoms.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Prevention
There is no established way to prevent chronic fatigue syndrome.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
If you experience symptoms of CFS, consult your doctor. You may have CFS, but the problem may turn out to be another disorder.
What Your Doctor Will Do
No specific diagnostic tests are available to identify CFS. Your doctor will obtain a detailed medical history and order blood and urine tests to rule out other causes for your fatigue. If no other cause for chronic fatigue can be established, then your physician will probably want to monitor your symptoms for three to six months to arrive at a diagnosis of CFS.
Certain prescription medications may help. A drug called cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril), which can relieve pain, tenderness, and muscle spasm, is sometimes prescribed for CFS. Low doses of certain antidepressants may help improve sleep and decrease fatigue and mood swings.