Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a complex condition that causes chronic, debilitating fatigue that is not relieved by bed rest or explained by any other medical condition. People who have CFS perform at a significantly lower level compared to their activity prior to the onset of the illness.
The exact cause of CFS is unknown. Some theories have associated the development of CFS with an infection, though a specific infectious agent has not been identified. Other research has suggested possible associations with abnormalities in the immune, endocrine, and/or nervous systems. CFS may be associated with a single trigger that has yet to be identified or it may be related to a combination of factors. More research may help find causes or triggers.
CFS is more common in women than men. Although CFS can happen at any age, it is generally seen in adults aged 25-55 years old. Other factors that may increase your chance of CFS include: Recent history of: Viral infection—examples include Epstein-Barr (causes mononucleosis), a variety of intestinal viruses, rubella (German measles), or Ross River fever (transmitted by mosquitoes in the tropics)Fungal infection—examples include some yeast infectionsBacterial infection—examples include atypical pneumonia and Q feverFamily history of CFSSuppressed immune systemChronic stressProblems with autoimmunity—abnormal immune response to healthy body tissues
Allergies or sensitivities to
foods, chemicals, odors, medications, light, or noise
Exposure to toxinsTrauma
Symptoms vary from person to person. They may include: Unexplained, new onset, persistent fatigue that is not relieved with bed rest and often worsens with physical or mental activityUnexplained muscle achesJoint pain without swelling or redness over 6 monthsHeadaches over 6 monthsTrouble with short-term memory or concentration Forgetfulness or confusion
anxiety, panic attacks, mood swings, or
over 6 months
Tender lymph nodes over 6 monthsTrouble sleeping or not feeling refreshed after sleep over 6 monthsVisual problems, such as blurring or eye painReduced activities—social, job-related, educational, and personalLightheadedness, balance problems, or faintingChills and night sweats
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. There are no specific diagnostic tests for CFS. Your doctor may do several other tests to rule out other conditions that can have similar symptoms. Blood, urine, and imaging tests generally appear normal, even when symptoms are present.
CFS diagnosis is a process of elimination. It may take a long time for CFS to be diagnosed. CFS may be diagnosed if there are no signs of other medical conditions, tests reveal nothing out of the ordinary, and the following criteria exist: Severe, chronic fatigue for at least 6 months that is not due to exertion, or other illness or medical cause ANDFatigue interferes with daily activities like work or school AND
At least 4 of the following: Impairment of short-term memory or concentrationSore throat that keeps coming backTender lymph nodes in the neck or armpitMuscle painJoint pain without swelling or rednessHeadaches of a new type, severity, or patternUnrefreshing sleepProlonged fatigue lasting 24 hours or more after exercise
There is no cure for CFS, but its symptoms can be managed with the goal of improving the quality of life. Some treatments will work better for some than others. A combination of approaches may also be most effective.
If you have CFS, avoid overexertion and physical and emotional stress. Balancing your activities throughout the day may help you to not overexert yourself. Moderate exercise that is monitored by a doctor or physical therapist may improve symptoms. Slowly increase the duration and intensity of exercise. Light exercise and stretching 4 hours before bedtime may help with sleep.
In addition, your doctor may have you work with a physical therapist. Some therapies that might be helpful for you include: MassageStretchingTai chiYoga
can help prevent nutritional deficiencies and weight fluctuations. Nutritional supplements cannot make up for a poor diet. Avoid foods to which you may be sensitive.
CFS can be mentally and physically debilitating.
is common among people with CFS. In fact, as many as half develop depression as a consequence of CFS. Psychotherapy and supportive
often help those with CFS cope with the disorder. Learning relaxation training and
stress management techniques, as well as changing your sleep routine, may also help.
Talk with your therapist about whether cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is right for you to reduce fatigue symptoms. CBT is a problem-solving therapy that helps you change the way you perceive and react to situations, especially ones beyond your control.
Medications used to treat specific symptoms of CFS include:
AntidepressantsAnti-anxiety medicationsOver-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophenStimulants—mild ones may be helpful
Sedatives—to help with
There are no current guidelines to prevent CFS because the cause is unknown.
Chronic fatigue syndrome.
American Academy of Family Physicians Family Doctor website. Available at:
http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/chronic-fatigue-syndrome.html. Updated February 2014. Accessed February 23, 2016.
Chronic fatigue syndrome.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
website. Available at:
http://www.cdc.gov/cfs/index.html. Updated April 7, 2015. Accessed February 23, 2016.
Yancy JR, Thomas SM. Chronic fatigue syndrome: diagnosis and treatment. Am Fam Physician. 2012;86(8):741-746.
3/3/2011 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance
http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115094/Chronic-fatigue-syndrome: White P, Goldsmith K, Johnson AL, et al. Comparison of adaptive pacing therapy, cognitive behaviour therapy, graded exercise therapy, and specialist medical care for chronic fatigue syndrome (PACE): a randomised trial.
Last reviewed December 2015 by Marcin Chwistek, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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