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Search Health Information    Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Topic Overview

What is chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)?

Chronic fatigue syndrome, sometimes called CFS, is a condition that makes you feel so tired that you can't do all of your normal, daily activities. There are other symptoms too, but being very tired for at least 6 months is the main one.

Many people improve in a year or two and do not have a relapse. Some people continue to have severe fatigue and other symptoms for many years.

The disease is not well understood. Most experts now believe that it is a separate illness with its own set of symptoms. But some doctors do not believe this.

There are no tests for CFS. Because of this, many people have trouble accepting their disease or getting their friends and family to do so. Having people who believe your diagnosis and support you is very important. Having a doctor you can trust is critical.

Your tiredness is real. It's not "in your head." It is your body's reaction to a combination of emotional and physical factors.

What causes CFS?

Doctors don't know what causes CFS. Sometimes it begins after an illness like the flu, but there is no proof of any connection. It's likely that a number of factors or triggers come together to cause CFS.

What are the symptoms?

Extreme tiredness, or fatigue, is the main symptom. If you have CFS:

  • You may feel exhausted all or much of the time.
  • You may have problems sleeping, or you may wake up feeling tired or not rested.
  • It may be harder for you to think clearly, to concentrate, and to remember things.
  • You may also have headaches, muscle and joint pain, a sore throat, and tender glands in your neck or armpits.
  • Your symptoms may flare up after a mental or physical activity that used to be no problem for you.

Depression is common with CFS, and it can make your other symptoms worse. Antidepressant medicines can help you feel better.

How is CFS diagnosed?

There are no tests for CFS. Doctors can diagnose it only by ruling out other possible causes of your fatigue. Many other health problems can cause fatigue, and most people with fatigue have something other than chronic fatigue syndrome.

How is it treated?

There is no treatment for CFS itself, but many of its symptoms can be treated. A good relationship with your doctor is important, because the two of you will need to work together to find a combination of medicines and behavior changes that will help you get better. Some trial and error may be needed, because no single combination of treatments works for everyone.

Home treatment is very important. You may need to change your daily schedule, learn better sleep habits, and start getting regular gentle exercise.

Counseling and a gradual increase in exercise help people who have CFS get better.

Even though it may not be easy, keeping a good attitude really helps. Try not to get caught in a cycle of frustration, anger, and depression. Learning to cope with your symptoms and talking to others who have the same illness can help you keep a good attitude.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS):

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Living with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS):

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Cause

Doctors do not know what causes chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Some people develop it after having a viral or bacterial infection, such as the flu, but there is no evidence to prove this link. Other theories point to the immune system , the nervous system, glands and hormones, and family history. But again, there's not enough evidence to prove any connection.

Symptoms

The main symptom of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a devastating tiredness or exhaustion that has lasted at least 6 months and does not improve much with rest. This fatigue also is so severe that it interferes with your work, your play, and your social activities. The fatigue and other symptoms described below may begin suddenly or they may develop gradually over weeks or months.

Other long-term symptoms include:

  • Forgetfulness, memory loss, confusion, or difficulty concentrating.
  • Sore throat.
  • A fever .
  • Tender lymph nodes in the neck or armpits.
  • Muscle pain.
  • Joint pain without redness or swelling.
  • Headaches that are different from other headaches you have had in the past.
  • Unrefreshing sleep (waking up feeling tired or not rested).
  • Feeling unwell after exercise or other physical activities.

Because CFS is not easily diagnosed, health experts have established some rules to help them recognize the disease. To be diagnosed with CFS, you must have fatigue and at least four of the symptoms listed above. At least four of your symptoms must have started at the same time as or after your fatigue began, and they must have lasted for at least 6 months.

But if you have symptoms of CFS, such as often feeling very tired for no clear reason, you may still get treatment even if you don't quite meet these criteria. For instance, your doctor may decide you need treatment even if you have had symptoms for less than 6 months.

Some people with CFS develop a condition in which their heart rate increases and their blood pressure drops when they stand or sit up from a reclining position. This is often described as feeling "lightheaded" or feeling faint or dizzy. This condition is called orthostatic hypotension .

Depression is common and can make your other symptoms worse. Antidepressant medicines can help you feel better.

CFS causes symptoms that are the same as many other diseases, especially early on. For this reason, it can be diagnosed only after a thorough evaluation has ruled out other conditions with similar symptoms.

What Happens

In some cases, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) develops after an illness such as mononucleosis (mono) or the flu, or after a period of unusual stress. But it may also develop without warning, even if you have not been sick.

The fatigue may come upon you gradually or quite suddenly. Because fatigue can be vague and can be caused by many things, you might not pay attention to the problem for several weeks or months. It is hard to say what is normal with CFS because the diagnosis often is not clear for some time.

In general:

  • Symptoms are worse at the beginning.
  • Later, you may feel better for a time and then feel worse again. Or your symptoms may disappear entirely. Many people improve in a year or two and do not have a relapse. Some people continue to have severe fatigue and other symptoms for many years.

Some people find the fatigue, pain, and thinking problems caused by CFS greatly hamper their lives, but other people are not nearly as affected.

  • Most people are still able to perform some of their usual activities at home and work, but they often are unusually tired after they do them. People often have to cut down on social and recreational activities to save their energy for work and family.
  • Other people have trouble doing most or all of their daily activities, including work and the basic chores of daily living. They may have to carefully plan how to best use their energy.
  • People who are most severely affected by CFS may have difficulty getting out of bed and may require help with basic activities such as dressing, eating, and bathing.

What Increases Your Risk

People who have chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) are generally 25 to 45 years of age. Women are more likely to have CFS.

CFS is rare in children. It may occur in teenagers, especially young teenage girls. Unlike adults, teenagers are more likely to develop CFS after having an illness such as mononucleosis or the flu.

When To Call a Doctor

It's important to talk to your doctor about any symptoms you may have.

Call your doctor if you have:

  • Severe fatigue that lasts longer than 2 weeks, causes you to limit your usual activities, and does not improve with rest.
  • Sleep problems (being unable to fall asleep or stay asleep, tossing and turning, waking up feeling tired or not rested) that last for more than 1 to 2 months.
  • Swelling in the glands in your neck or armpits (without other signs of infection) that lasts for at least 2 weeks.
  • Severe fatigue along with frequent urination (especially at night), extreme thirst, weight loss, or blurred vision. Fatigue that occurs with some or all of these may be a symptom of undiagnosed diabetes.
  • Headache that lasts longer than 2 weeks.

Watchful waiting

Watchful waiting refers to a period of time in which you are being watched by your doctor but are not receiving treatment. It is also called observation or surveillance. A month or two of paying close attention to your sleep habits, getting regular moderate exercise, trying to control stress, and eating a balanced diet will take care of most cases of fatigue not caused by CFS or another medical problem. But if your fatigue has not improved after 1 to 2 months of self-care, or if fatigue is persistent and limits your usual activities, call your doctor.

If you have been diagnosed with CFS, pay attention to any new symptoms and report them to your doctor. Although CFS can cause a variety of symptoms, new symptoms could be caused by another illness or medical condition that may need to be evaluated and treated.

Who to see

The following health professionals can evaluate fatigue and other symptoms:

There are doctors who specialize in the treatment of CFS. Get a recommendation from your family doctor or a local CFS support group before making an appointment with a specialist. It is always wise to start with your family doctor. You may also be referred to a physiatrist , psychologist , or psychiatrist .

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

Exams and Tests

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is hard to diagnose. Fatigue is an extremely common problem, and it can have many other causes. CFS can be diagnosed only by ruling out other conditions.

First, your doctor will take your medical history and do a physical exam. Experts have come up with a specific list of symptoms to decide whether a person has CFS. Doctors use a variety of tests to rule out other conditions. These tests usually include:

These are routine lab tests. Other tests may be done if your symptoms, history, and physical exam suggest other possible problems. Additional tests may include:

Some doctors may order tests that check your immune system . These can be expensive and generally are done only in research settings. Also, it's hard to know what the findings of these tests mean, because so little is known about the immune system's connection to chronic fatigue syndrome.

Treatment Overview

Treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) focuses on making you feel better so that you can resume a normal life. Simple measures you can take at home—such as improving your sleep habits and getting gentle exercise—are important parts of treatment. Talking with a counselor or psychologist has been shown to be helpful for people who have CFS.

Although there is no cure for CFS, many of its symptoms do respond to treatment.

Initial treatment

Pain relievers that you can buy without a prescription, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, may help relieve headaches, muscle and joint pain, and other physical symptoms. Narcotic pain relievers, which require a prescription from a doctor, may become addictive if they are used frequently. So they are typically prescribed in the most severe cases on a short-term basis.

Taking antidepressants and getting counseling can help relieve your other symptoms, whether you have depression or not. Antidepressants are used to improve your mood, control your pain, and help you sleep. With CFS, treating both physical and psychological factors is important.

There are many unproven remedies, such as special diets or mineral supplements, that some people recommend for treating CFS. There is no evidence that any of these are effective. 1

Ongoing treatment

Home treatment is very important. Adjusting your daily schedule to take advantage of times when you have more energy, improving your sleep habits, and getting regular and gentle exercise can often help you feel better. Beginning a graded exercise program, in which the level of exercise starts out easy and gradually grows more challenging, should be part of your treatment. Studies have shown that a carefully planned exercise program can help people with CFS regain their strength and energy and feel better. 1 Remember that if you have CFS, you will be able to do only light exercise. Doing too much or increasing your level of exercise too quickly can make your symptoms worse.

Click here to view an Actionset. Insomnia: Improving Your Sleep
Click here to view an Actionset. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Using Graded Exercise to Get More Energy

A type of counseling called cognitive-behavioral therapy has been shown to help people who have CFS feel less tired. 1 It is counseling that teaches people how to change the way they think and behave to cope more successfully with their fatigue and other symptoms.

Even though it's not easy, keeping a good attitude is a great benefit for people with CFS. Your mind and body are connected and influence each other. Physical illnesses can be made worse—or better—by your feelings and attitudes, and vice versa. Learn as much as you can about your disease and work with your doctor to learn ways to cope with your symptoms. Get emotional support from your health professionals as well as from your family and friends. It's easy to get caught in a cycle of frustration, anger, and depression. Learning to cope with your symptoms will help you avoid that cycle.

Click here to view an Actionset. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Using Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Regular visits to your doctor every few months can help track your progress and evaluate any changes in your symptoms that might indicate that your fatigue is caused by something other than CFS.

Treatment if the condition gets worse

The good news about CFS is that it rarely gets worse over time. In some people, it goes away in 1 or 2 years. Others have periods of relatively good health followed by periods of severe symptoms and great difficulty. Relapses are not unusual. Continue to see your doctor periodically to monitor changes in your condition.

What to think about

Although the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is not well understood, the fatigue is real and can make day-to-day activities difficult. As you work toward regaining your strength and energy, don't go too fast. Aim for a gradual return to your previous level of activity.

Prevention

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) can be neither prevented nor cured. Home treatment and, when appropriate, certain medicines can help control or reduce symptoms.

Home Treatment

Home treatment is the most important part of treating chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). If you have CFS, you can take steps to control and sometimes relieve your symptoms:

  • Adjust your schedule to take advantage of times when you feel more energetic and less tired. Keep a diary for a week or so and record the times of day when you have energy and when you are tired. If there is a pattern to how your energy level changes during the day, try to plan your work, school, or other activities around that pattern.
  • Try not to do too much when you are feeling energetic. If you do too much, you may become overtired, and it may take several days for you to recover.
  • Improve your sleep habits. Sleep problems may contribute to your fatigue and other symptoms.
    • Go to bed only when you are sleepy, and get up at the same time every day, regardless of whether you feel rested.
    • If you lie awake for longer than 15 minutes, get up, leave the bedroom, and do something quiet until you feel sleepy again.
    • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco before bed.
    • Keep the bedroom at a comfortable temperature, and eliminate all sound and light disturbances.
    • Make sure your mattress provides good support. Use a neck support pillow to keep your head and neck from moving too much when you sleep.
    • Take naps if you need to. Keep them short (20 to 60 minutes), and try not to take them late in the day or evening.
    Click here to view an Actionset. Insomnia: Improving Your Sleep
  • Get light, gentle exercise regularly. Stretching is a good beginning exercise. Light aerobic exercise such as walking, swimming, or riding a bicycle or stationary bike can also be helpful. You need to find a balance between exercising enough to benefit from it and exercising so much that you become overtired.
    Click here to view an Actionset. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Using Graded Exercise to Get More Energy
  • Try taking nonprescription pain medicines to relieve muscle and joint pain and headaches caused by CFS. Medicines that may be helpful include acetaminophen (such as Tylenol), ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin), or naproxen (such as Aleve). Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
  • Join a support group. These groups can be a good source of information and tips for managing your illness and a chance to share your frustrations and problems with others who have CFS. Ask your doctor or contact a local hospital for the location of a support group near you.
  • Eat a balanced diet that is low in fat and high in carbohydrates and fiber.

Be patient, and keep in mind that consistent home treatment usually helps relieve or control CFS symptoms. Your doctor may suggest cognitive-behavioral therapy to help you with your home treatment.

Click here to view an Actionset. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Using Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Medications

Medicines do not cure chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS): they only help relieve symptoms. They may not greatly speed up your return to full activity. But when medicines are used properly, they can help you feel better.

Medication choices

Over-the-counter medicines include:

  • Pain relievers and anti-inflammatory drugs: Over-the-counter drugs, including acetaminophen (for example, Tylenol), ibuprofen (for example, Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (for example, Aleve), are used to treat frequent or severe joint and muscle pain, headaches, and fevers. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.

Prescription medicines include:

  • Antidepressants: Antidepressants are prescribed by a doctor to ease depression and anxiety, improve your ability to concentrate, help you sleep better, and decrease fatigue and muscle pain.
  • Codeine, morphine, and meperidine (Demerol): These drugs are prescribed by a doctor for pain that is not relieved by over-the-counter drugs. They generally are reserved for the most severe cases. Because of the risk of addiction, they are used only on a short-term basis.

What to think about

Some research has studied the use of corticosteroids (such as hydrocortisone and fludrocortisone) to treat chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Studies have shown that these medicines do not work very well to treat CFS. And the side effects can be serious. Unless corticosteroids can be shown to have a greater benefit for people with CFS over a longer period of time, the side effects associated with long-term corticosteroid therapy outweigh the benefits from their use in most cases. 1

Depression often becomes a part of chronic fatigue syndrome and can make your symptoms worse. Like any medical illness, depression needs to be treated. If you have CFS and are depressed, tell your doctor how you feel. Antidepressants and counseling can help you keep a good attitude, which has been shown to be a great benefit to people who have CFS.

Other Treatment

As with many conditions that have no clear cause and no effective medical treatment, there are many treatments outside of conventional medicine that some people recommend for chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). None have been shown to be effective.

But there are safe nontraditional therapies—acupuncture, yoga, or massage therapy, for example—that can relieve pain and stress, ease muscle tension, help you feel better and healthier, and improve your outlook and quality of life.

Treatment choices

Some popular complementary therapies include:

Unproven treatments

There are many unproven treatments for CFS. Some of the more popular ones include:

  • Large doses of vitamins or minerals. But taking too much of certain vitamins and minerals can actually be harmful.
  • Diets that eliminate certain foods or ingredients (such as yeast, sugar, or food additives) that some people believe stress the immune system . Because the exact role of the immune system in CFS isn't well understood, there is no scientific basis for these remedies. But if certain foods seem to make your symptoms worse, there is no harm in avoiding them as long as you are eating a balanced diet.
  • Aloe vera juice.
  • Evening primrose oil.
  • Royal jelly (a bee product).

What to think about

None of these complementary therapies have  been proven effective in treating CFS, but some people have reported feeling better after using them. If you have CFS and are thinking about trying a complementary therapy, get the facts before you begin. Consider these questions with your doctor:

  • Is it safe? Do not use treatments that could harm you, such as unusual diets or excessive vitamin or mineral supplements. (A daily multiple vitamin is okay. Try to avoid taking more than 100% of the recommended daily allowance for any vitamin or mineral unless your doctor prescribes it.)
  • Is the product manufactured reliably? Vitamin and mineral supplements and herbal products are not subject to the same regulations as medicines. Ingredients may vary from one maker to another. Read the labels carefully and choose well-known brands you trust.
  • Does it work? It may be hard to tell whether a treatment is working. Keep in mind that when you get better after treatment, the treatment may not be the reason for your improvement. Symptoms of CFS often improve on their own, or the treatment may be causing a placebo effect , which makes you feel better.
  • How much does it cost? An expensive treatment that may or may not help you may not be worth the high cost. Beware of products or treatment providers who require a large financial investment up front or a series of costly treatments.
  • Will it improve my general health? Even if complementary therapies are not effective in treating CFS, some of them are safe and healthy habits that may improve your general well-being and may be worth trying.

Avoid products that claim to have a "secret" ingredient or that claim to cure CFS. Currently, there is no cure for CFS. Any benefit reported as a result of using a product is most likely due to improved symptom management, chance, or, possibly, the illness running its course.

For more information, see the topic Complementary Medicine.

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

American College of Physicians
Web Address: www.acponline.org/patients_families

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (U.S.)
1600 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA  30333
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-311-3435)
(404) 639-3534
TDD: 1-888-232-6348
Web Address: www.cdc.gov/cfs
 

This Web site provides information about the diagnosis and treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome. It also includes information to help you find a support group for people with CFS. The site is maintained by the National Center for Infectious Diseases of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).


Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFIDS) Association of America
P.O. Box 220398
Charlotte, NC  28222-0398
Phone: (704) 365-2343
Web Address: www.cfids.org
 

The CFIDS Association of America works to build support for people suffering from chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (also known as chronic fatigue syndrome). The organization offers educational information and other resources to people with CFS, their family and friends, support groups, caregivers, the general public, and health care professionals.


References

Citations

  1. Reid S, et al. (2011). Chronic fatigue syndrome, search date March 2010. BMJ Clinical Evidence. Available online: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.

Other Works Consulted

  • Bleijenberg G, Van Der Meer JWM (2012). Chronic fatigue syndrome. In DL Longo et al., eds., Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 18th ed., vol. 2, pp. 3519–3521. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Engleberg NC (2010). Chronic fatigue syndrome. In GL Mandell et al., eds., Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, 7th ed., pp. 1897–1904. Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.
  • Sadock BJ, Sadock VA (2007). Chronic fatigue syndrome. Kaplan and Sadock's Synopsis of Psychiatry: Behavioral Sciences/Clinical Psychiatry, 10th ed., pp. 652–657. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • White PD, et al. (2011). Comparison of adaptive pacing therapy, cognitive behaviour therapy, graded exercise therapy, and specialist medical care for chronic fatigue syndrome (PACE): A randomised trial. Lancet, 377(9768): 823–826.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Nancy Greenwald, MD - Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
Last Revised January 18, 2013

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