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If you’re suffering from the syndrome known as chronic fatigue, treatment can vary—no surprise, considering that the condition itself is so mysterious. Before we get into management of chronic fatigue syndrome, consider the genesis of how we define it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) bases its description of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) on a 1994 case definition—one that provides a consensus viewpoint from leading researchers and clinicians and that followed various studies of CFS in adults.
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Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Causes
Subsequent case definitions have been proposed—including one adapted for children and adolescents While they share features with the 1994 definition, they also differ in the emphasis given to symptoms and severity. So as further research is conducted, the CDC cites the 1994 case definition:
“Chronic fatigue syndrome is a debilitating and complex disorder characterized by intense fatigue that is not improved by bed rest and that may be worsened by physical activity or mental exertion. People with CFS often function at a substantially lower level of activity than they were capable of before they became ill.”
The CDC case definition goes on discuss the challenge of finding a chronic fatigue syndrome cause:
“The cause or causes of CFS have not been identified, and no specific diagnostic tests are available. Therefore, a CFS diagnosis requires three criteria:
- The individual has had severe chronic fatigue for six or more consecutive months that is not due to ongoing exertion or other medical conditions associated with fatigue (these other conditions need to be ruled out by a doctor after diagnostic tests have been conducted).
- The fatigue significantly interferes with daily activities and work.
- The individual concurrently has four or more of the following eight symptoms:
- post-exertion malaise lasting more than 24 hours
- unrefreshing sleep
- significant impairment of short-term memory or concentration
- muscle pain
- pain in the joints without swelling or redness
- headaches of a new type, pattern, or severity
- tender lymph nodes in the neck or armpit
- a sore throat that is frequent or recurring
“These symptoms should have persisted or recurred during six or more consecutive months of illness and they cannot have first appeared before the fatigue.”
Chronic Fatigue Treatment: What’s Next?
There’s currently no cure for chronic fatigue syndrome, nor have prescription drugs been developed to relieve the condition. Healthcare providers instead talk about managing CFS—a challenge because it affects each patient in a different way. Plus, symptoms can vary over time, further complicating matters.
The most effective treatment of CFS, experts say, involves a team approach: doctors who specialize in different areas working with the patient himself. By working together, they have a better chance of creating a customized treatment program.
Doctors typically set out to relieve the most disruptive symptoms in a chronic fatigue syndrome patient. For example, some patients may experience a serious sleep disorder as one of their symptoms, whether it’s insomnia, restless leg syndrome, or nocturnal myoclonus (night-time muscular spasm). A sleep specialist’s treatment might involve the establishment of a hard-and-fast bedtime routine, the elimination of napping during the day, regular exercise, and the avoidance of caffeine after lunch and of alcohol and tobacco altogether.
When Your CFS Symptom Is Pain…
If a patient’s most serious CFS symptom is pain in his muscles and joints, his doctor may pursue pain management via such tactics as medication (like aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen), massage, water therapy, relaxation techniques, and/or a stretching and exercise program.
If a CFS patient’s most disruptive symptom is depression, his physician may recommend psychological counseling as well as “movement” therapies (yoga, tai chi, stretching exercises), deep breathing and muscle relaxation techniques, massage therapies, or an antidepressant prescription.
The first step, though, is to meet with your healthcare provider to review your symptoms. From there, you and your healthcare team can pursue the right management and coping strategies.
For related reading, see these University Health News posts:
- “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Treatment: Hope Lies Ahead“
- “How to Improve Energy Level: 7 Strategies for the Overtired“
Originally published in May 2016 and updated.