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Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

separator People who have chronic fatigue syndrome, or CFS, are not simply tired. Many of them often experience profound exhaustion, to the point where at times they can barely force themselves to get out of bed, to walk a few steps or even to pick up a pencil.

The severity of CFS varies from person to person. Other common symptoms of CFS, besides exhaustion, can include:

  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Restless sleep
  • Tender lymph nodes
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Difficulty with short-term memory
  • Dizziness and balance problems

Symptoms last for at least six months, and can continue for months or years. Activities like exercise, going to a party or attending a conference can trigger the symptoms, which can last for a day, weeks or longer. Symptoms often come and go, which makes treatment difficult.

Having CFS can also cause depression; irritability; menstrual problems; blurred vision; fever; numbness or tingling in the face, fingers or toes; allergies and sensitivity to chemicals, noise or odors. You can probably imagine that all these possible symptoms might make CFS difficult to diagnose—and you would be right.

How is CFS diagnosed?
Making a CFS diagnosis is difficult. There’s no specific marker, no test that clearly indicates CFS is present. But in 1994, an international group of CFS researchers produced a “case definition” for the condition. The case identification is complex, but it does show doctors how to determine whether a patient’s symptoms can rule out CFS and whether the symptoms indicate that CFS is the likely diagnosis. Generally, doctors will first rule out other conditions that have similar symptoms, such as lupus, hypothyroidism (under active thyroid), multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia before determining that you have CFS.

How is CFS treated?
Since there’s no known cause, it’s difficult for doctors to know exactly how to treat CFS. As a general rule, most patients do best when they receive treatments and make lifestyle changes that address their specific symptoms. For example, for a patient who is exhausted, depressed and irritable, treatment might consist of stress management therapies and exercises, lifestyle modifications to minimize the exhaustion and medication or therapy for the depression. This might sound simple, but when you consider that the symptoms vary from time to time even for the same person, treatment is actually extremely difficult to keep up with.

Other CFS facts

  • People of all ethnicities can develop CFS.
  • CFS can develop in the teen years, but the average age at onset is 30 years.
  • There’s no evidence that CFS is contagious.
  • The CDC estimates that probably about 500,000 people in the U.S. have CFS.
  • The CDC reports that about half the patients with CFS recover completely after five years.
  • There is no known method for predicting who will recover completely and who will not.

One of the more well known people to have CFS is Laura Hillenbrand, the author of the book Seabiscuit. Hillenbrand began experiencing symptoms while she was at Kenyon College in the late ‘80s. She has a particularly severe form of CFS, and she has spoken publicly about it in the hope of raising awareness among the public and the medical community. Hillenbrand visited doctor after doctor when she first developed symptoms, and had an extremely difficult time getting a diagnosis. At that time, CFS had no known definition.

If you have symptoms similar to those listed for CFS, and you’re having trouble finding out what’s wrong with you, don’t give up. Ask your doctor to rule out the conditions with similar symptoms. And find out whether your doctor is open to the possibility that you could have CFS. There are still some physicians who don’t believe CFS exists, so you want to steer clear of someone like that.

If you do find out that you have CFS, find out everything you can about it. Visit these Web sites to learn more about the condition itself, about joining a support group, about patient advocacy, treatment, etc:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 

The CFIDS Association of America

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; CFIDS Association of America; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
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