The overwhelming symptom in chronic fatigue syndrome is long-standing physical and mental exhaustion with no clear cause.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

What is chronic fatigue syndrome?

The overwhelming symptom in chronic fatigue syndrome is long-standing physical and mental exhaustion with no clear cause. Typically, sufferers of chronic fatigue are tired by even simple everyday tasks such as reading a newspaper or talking to a friend.

The typical symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome include the following:

  • severe fatigue exceeding normal tiredness lasting for six months or more;
  • sleep disturbances;
  • drowsiness;
  • nausea;
  • sore throat;
  • pain in the muscles/joints, chest pain, headache;
  • memory lapses, slips of the tongue.

There is no diagnostic test for chronic fatigue syndrome, so it is usually diagnosed by excluding other reasons for the person’s symptoms.

Who is at risk for chronic fatigue syndrome?

Chronic fatigue syndrome may affect people who are very fit, and it is not unusual for the condition to occur in people who have very busy and responsible lifestyles, suggesting that there may be a stress-related trigger to its development. This condition can affect anyone, including children.

Certain factors appear to increase the risk of chronic fatigue syndrome. These include viral illnesses such as glandular fever or encephalitis, disorders such as depression and recent highly stressful life events such as a bereavement, but chronic fatigue syndrome can sometimes appear without any obvious cause or predisposing factors.

Treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome

Because there is no clear underlying cause of chronic fatigue syndrome, there is no obvious medical treatment in the sense of specific medicines that can be used. Instead, health professionals talk of ‘managing’ the condition and often use the term ‘biopsychosocial’ for the programme of management. Chronic fatigue syndrome is treated by focusing on the symptoms, investigating the things that are maintaining them, and helping patients to manage these as well as they can. It is important to maintain a daily routine of activity.

For example, most of us respond to fatigue by feeling that we should rest; we may believe that we will delay recovery or even do damage by being active. However, when fatigue is long-lasting, too much rest can produce problems. Loss of muscle tone means even more fatigue when we try to get going again. Therefore the ideal way of managing chronic fatigue syndrome is to put together a programme of graded exercise to increase activity gradually. Built into this programme are periods of planned rest.

Alongside this exercise plan, it is important to ensure that people are eating a balanced diet. Help and advice about healthy eating may also be offered. Therapists call this kind of management ‘pacing’, and what it really means is making sure that the chronic fatigue sufferer balances activity, rest and a carefully balanced diet in an individual treatment plan that gradually increases physical activity and stamina.

Research has shown that the benefits of the graded exercise programme have been a key element in helping people make a successful recovery from chronic fatigue syndrome.

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Adapted from Family Medical Adviser, Reader's Digest

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