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Spotlight on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

separator Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) can be a frustrating illness. Doctors usually are able to diagnose it only after ruling out other conditions, such as fibromyalgia, depression, viral illness, thyroid problems or heart conditions. You don’t necessarily look like you’re sick when you have CFS. And since CFS was defined as an actual illness fairly recently (in the 1980s), there are still some people who think that CFS isn’t really a disease at all.

Most cases of CFS affect people from age 20 through 40, but it can affect those in their teens as well. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about half a million people in the United States have CFS. 

What are the symptoms?
CFS is difficult to diagnose because there are many other conditions that have the same symptoms. There’s no specific test that indicates without a doubt that CFS is present.

The hallmark of CFS is overpowering fatigue that doesn’t improve with rest. To diagnose CFS, doctors look for that chronic, severe, fatigue, plus four of the following symptoms that have been present for six months:

  • Difficulty with concentration and short-term memory
  • Pain in the joints and muscles
  • Sleep that is not refreshing
  • Sore throat
  • Headaches that are unlike other headaches you’ve had before
  • Tenderness in the lymph nodes of the armpit and neck
  • Tiredness that continues for more than 24 hours

It can take a long time for doctors to make a diagnosis of CFS, because they must rule out other conditions first.

The symptoms of CFS are not limited to the ones listed above. People with CFS also may experience rashes, blurred vision, sensitivity to light, chills or night sweats, chest pain, unexplained weight changes, seizures, depression and anxiety.

One of the most difficult aspects of CFS is that the severity of the symptoms varies. For example, sometimes you may feel tired but not overwhelmingly so, and then it changes, and you feel as if you can’t even summon the energy to walk across the room. This unpredictability can make it harder to deal with the condition.

What is the cause?
Researchers have not yet determined the cause of CFS. There are plenty of theories, such as immune disorder, problems with the central nervous system, a virus, environmental allergies and anemia.

CFS treatment: wide-ranging, diverse
Since there’s no real medication regimen for CFS, the treatment generally involves taking steps to relieve symptoms and to improve your ability to function. If you have CFS, it’s important to find a doctor you feel comfortable with, who can take some time to talk with you in detail about your symptoms and ways to treat them.

Common ways to treat CFS include:

►        Medications: Drugs that can provide symptom relief, such as drugs for depression, sleep disturbances and pain.

►        Supportive therapies: There are many types of therapists who can help people with CFS manage their condition. These include massage therapists; exercise therapists (it’s difficult to exercise when you’re feeling exhausted, but an exercise therapist can help you identify ways to exercise and help you determine when you should be active and when you shouldn’t); occupational therapists who can help you use your energy on the job more efficiently and make adjustments when needed; nutritional therapists; mental health therapists; acupuncturists.

In addition, consider learning Chinese movements such as t’ai chi or qigong. This type of movement can help you learn to relax your body and heighten your sense of well-being. The exercises are gentle and flowing, which is more appealing to someone with CFS than something that requires more physical exertion.

CFS does usually improve with time
If you have CFS, it’s important to remember that even though the course of the illness can be long—it can last for several years, it generally gets better—gradually—in time. You’ll have longer periods of time during which you feel good, and your “down” times will become shorter and shorter.

The key thing is to find a set of behaviors that can help improve the way you feel now, when you have CFS. The more options you explore, the more likely you are to find solutions that work for you.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; The Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome of America
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