Could You Have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?

There's whipped, wiped out, weary and just plain pooped. And then there's something else—chronic fatigue syndrome—a debilitating condition that affects one million Americans. Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is also known as chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS) and is depicted by unremitting, severe fatigue. The CFIDS Association of America describes what it feels like to have this condition:

CFS is characterized by incapacitating fatigue (experienced as profound exhaustion and extremely poor stamina) and difficulty with concentration and short-term memory. It may be accompanied by flu-like symptoms such as pain in the joints and muscles, sleep that is not refreshing, tender lymph nodes, sore throat and headache. A distinctive characteristic of the illness is post-exertional malaise, a worsening of symptoms following physical or mental exertion occurring within 12 to 48 hours of the exertion and requiring an extended recovery period.

In addition, patients with CFS have also reported experiencing the following symptoms:

  • Brain fog (unclear thinking)
  • Difficulty maintaining an upright position, dizziness, balance problems, or fainting
  • Allergies or sensitivities to foods, odors, chemicals, medications, or noise
  • Irritable bowel
  • Chills and night sweats
  • Visual disturbances (sensitivity to light, blurring, eye pain)
  • Depression or mood problems (irritability, mood swings, anxiety, panic attacks)

Though the cause of the problem is not known, experts point to viral infections, an impaired immune system, hormonal imbalance, psychological stress or a combination of factors as possible triggers.

How Is CFS Diagnosed?

There isn't a specific blood or diagnostic test that positively identifies CFS or CFIDS. Instead, the problem is often diagnosed by ruling out other conditions. Getting a proper diagnosis can be frustrating and time consuming since CFS and CFIDS symptoms often mimic other conditions like fibromyalgia, lupus, and hypothyroidism. In order for a definitive diagnosis to be made the case definition criteria calls for four of eight symptoms to be present along with fatigue that interferes with physical, mental, social and educational activities. Both the fatigue and symptoms must have occurred for at least a six-month period.

How Long Does It Last?

CFS affects patients differently and often symptoms come in waves. Patients might have periods of feeling ill followed by a long phase of feeling more or less normal. Some patients are affected for months, years or indefinitely and some recover completely. The CIFDS Association of America says this pattern of remission and relapse makes CFS especially hard for patients to manage. Patients who are in remission may be tempted to overdo activities when they're feeling better, but this overexertion may actually contribute to a relapse.

How Is CFS Treated?

There's no specific treatment or cure for CFS. Instead, treatment revolves around supporting wellness and helping the body to heal itself. That includes paying close attention to diet, modified, moderate exercise, rest, stress reduction and addressing other lifestyle issues that may be causing the body and mind undo stress. Doctors may be able to prescribe medication to relieve pain, anxiety, depression and other symptoms. Some patients have found that alternative treatments like Chinese medicine, acupuncture, tai chi and herbal remedies are helpful.

If you're experiencing the symptoms of CFS, talk to your doctor about ways to support your health, relieve your symptoms and adjust your lifestyle to accommodate healing.

Liesa Harte, MD, reviewed this article.