Are You “Just Tired” or Is It Chronic Fatigue Syndrome? Everything You Need to Know

Medically Reviewed by Carolin Schneider, MD

Photo Courtesy: Malte Mueller/Getty Images

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), which is also called myalgic encephalomyelitis, is a complex disorder of several organ systems. Although the cause is currently unknown, it’s clearly a debilitating condition that interferes rather severely with an individual’s ability to function and complete daily activities, namely because individuals with chronic fatigue syndrome may experience long-lasting tiredness.

Individuals living with chronic fatigue syndrome often spend hours a day sleeping because they are too weak and exhausted to complete so-called “simple” tasks. In fact, even after extended periods of rest, the severity of the condition does not necessarily lessen.

Symptoms Associated With Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome can be challenging to identify. They are very similar to those that occur with other common illnesses, such as the flu or other common viral infections, with the primary symptom being extreme tiredness that interferes with everyday activities.

However, unlike the flu and other common viruses, the fatigue associated with chronic fatigue syndrome lasts for more than six months. Additional symptoms experienced by most folks with CFS include:

  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches
  • Joint pain

Many individuals also report the following: 

  • Confusion
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Irritability
  • Memory loss
  • Fever 
  • Sore throat 
  • Swelling in the glands of the throat and armpits

Causes of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Currently, experts are not sure what causes chronic fatigue syndrome. Current research suggests that the Epstein-Barr virus and some human herpes viruses may contribute to the development of the disease. Many doctors also believe that individuals with CFS may have a genetic component of the illness.

Other factors that can influence the development of the disease in susceptible individuals include the following:

  • Stress
  • Environmental toxins
  • History of prior illness
  • Hormonal factors

Chronic fatigue syndrome may impact individuals of any gender or age. However, research suggests most individuals who develop CFS are women between the ages of 30 and 50.

Diagnosing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

To date, there are no specific blood or stool tests that can confirm a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome. Many individuals with CFS will have an elevated white blood count and may have abnormal brain scan results. However, these results are not present in all individuals with CFS. Due to this, doctors rely on the patient’s description of symptoms to make a diagnosis.

Standard tests, such as blood work and a physical examination, are first performed to rule out any medical condition that may be causing similar symptoms to CFS. Possible situations that have symptoms similar to chronic fatigue syndrome include:

  • Drug addiction or withdrawals
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Other nerve and/or muscle disorders
  • Diseases of the endocrine system
  • Thyroid disorder
  • Tumors
  • Liver diseases
  • Kidney disorders
  • Heart problems
  • Psychological disorders such as depression

In the absence of any underlying conditions, individuals who present with persistent symptoms that fit the criteria for chronic fatigue syndrome will receive a confirmed diagnosis.

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Treatment for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

The current medical treatment does not provide a cure for chronic fatigue syndrome. Individuals with CFS can rely on medicine to manage their disease, control symptoms, and help improve their condition. Typical medical treatments for chronic fatigue syndrome include:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Employing sleep management techniques to improve sleep quality
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Pain medication
  • Anxiety medication
  • Muscle relaxers
  • Antidepressant medication

There are many natural ways to make healthy life changes that can improve symptoms of CFS. By implementing healthy lifestyle changes, individuals can help get their symptoms under control, learn how to manage their daily lives, and work towards decreasing the occurrence and severity of CFS symptoms.

Moreover, some at-home means of treating and managing CFS include the following:

  • Meditation and deep breathing exercises
  • Hypnosis
  • Massage therapy
  • Muscle relaxation techniques
  • Stretching exercises
  • Yoga
  • Biofeedback
  • Acupuncture
  • Acupressure
  • Practicing time management skills
  • Aromatherapy

Individuals with chronic fatigue syndrome, or individuals who suspect they may experience CFS, should discuss diagnostic and treatment options with their doctor.

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