Amber had swollen glands and frequent headaches, and felt surprisingly weak. She was so tired that she had trouble concentrating at school and her grades began to drop. Some days, she found it hard to get out of bed.
Amber had been feeling like this since August — and it was now March. Her parents thought she might have mono, so they took her to the doctor. But after a physical exam and several blood tests, Amber's doctor said she had chronic fatigue syndrome.
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a complicated disease for doctors to diagnose — and even fully understand. Although it is a physical condition, CFS also has psychological components. This means that someone with CFS may feel physical symptoms, such as headaches or joint pain. But the person may also notice emotional components to the illness, such as a loss of interest in favorite activities.
To make it even more complicated, different people with CFS can have different symptoms. And the symptoms of CFS often mimic those of other health conditions, like mono, Lyme disease, or depression. As if that's not hard enough, symptoms of CFS can vary over time, even in the same individual.
All of this makes treating the illness a little more complicated because no single medication or treatment can address all the possible symptoms.
Scientists have researched CFS for more than 20 years, but they still don't know for sure what causes it.
Many doctors now believe that the way certain conditions interact within the body and mind might leave some people at risk of developing the condition. For example, if someone has a virus and is under a lot of stress, the combination of these two things might make the person more likely to develop CFS.
Doctors currently believe that the following things might interact with each other in this way, putting certain people at risk for CFS:
Researchers also have discovered that some people with CFS have a type of low blood pressure and are looking into whether there's a connection between this and CFS.
Chronic fatigue syndrome can affect people of all ages and ethnicities, although more girls than guys get CFS. CFS is very rare in kids. A few teens do get CFS, but it's more likely to happen to people in their forties or fifties. Teens with CFS seem to improve over time much more frequently than do older patients.
Sometimes different people in the same family get CFS. This may be because the tendency to develop CFS is genetic. Doctors are also pretty sure the disease is not contagious.
Right now, there's no test to tell if someone has CFS. Because the illness can be hard to diagnose, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established two criteria to guide doctors in knowing when a patient might have chronic fatigue syndrome:
To be diagnosed with CFS, a person must have both the long-lasting fatigue and four or more symptoms from the list above.
A doctor will take a detailed medical history and perform a thorough physical exam, usually along with a number of lab tests, in order to rule out the following:
After ruling out these conditions, doctors will often suggest that a patient meet with a therapist before diagnosing CFS. Why? Because it's important to have as much information as possible about how the symptoms affect a person's overall mental health, including memory, personality, ability to concentrate, and overall outlook on life.
There's no known cure for CFS. Although there is no hard and fast treatment, experts say that these lifestyle changes can help:
In addition to lifestyle changes, meeting regularly with a licensed therapist or counselor can help in CFS treatment. (So can getting involved in a support group for people with CFS.) The main goals of therapy are to help people cope with the illness and to change negative or unrealistic thoughts or feelings into positive, realistic ones. Having a positive feeling that you can get better is very helpful to CFS patients.
Some people find that antidepressant medications, taken under a doctor's supervision, can help ease the symptoms of CFS. And prescription or over-the-counter pain medications and anti-inflammatory drugs (such as ibuprofen) may also help some people.
Because scientists have not found any link between viruses or other types of infections and CFS, doctors don't treat the illness with antibiotics or antiviral medications. (Doctors have tried using these medications with CFS patients in the past, but they have not helped.)
Therapy and support groups can help teens with CFS and their parents deal with the academic or social challenges brought on by the illness, such as missed school, falling grades, or withdrawal from friends and social situations.
Here are some other ways to cope:
For most people, the symptoms of CFS are most severe in the beginning, and afterward they may come and go. According to the CDC, almost half of all CFS patients experience partial or full recovery within 5 years after the CFS symptoms began — once again, the outlook is better for teens than for adults.
Most important, don't give up. There's no doubt that CFS can be hard, and it's easy to become demoralized. But teens with CFS generally get better faster and recover from CFS more completely than adults do.
Many experts stress that it's more important for people with CFS to keep a positive approach to getting well instead of looking for the reason why they developed CFS. Unfortunately, many people spend too much time looking for a single cause and not beginning therapy — and therapies like the stress-management techniques and graded exercise previously mentioned have been shown to be effective in many cases. In other words, even without knowing the exact cause of CFS, people who take action and approach the condition with a positive outlook can have a good outcome.
CFS might be one of today's most misunderstood illnesses, but awareness is growing and scientists are working to find out more about it every day.
Reviewed by: J. Carlton Gartner Jr., MD
Date reviewed: May 2013
|Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) The CDC (the national public health institute of the United States) promotes health and quality of life by preventing and controlling disease, injury, and disability.|
|Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome Association of America (CFIDS) The CFIDS Association of America is a charitable organization dedicated to conquering chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS), also known as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Contact CFIDS at: Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome Association of America P.O. Box 220398|
Charlotte, NC 28222-0398 (704) 365-2343
|Dealing With a Health Condition If you suffer from a chronic illness, you know it can be anything but fun. But you can become better informed and more involved in your care. Here are tips to help you deal.|
|Why Exercise Is Wise Getting the right amount of exercise can rev up your energy levels and even help you to feel better emotionally. Find out why.|
|Complementary and Alternative Medicine People used to consider practices like acupuncture or herbal medicine outside the mainstream. But today more doctors are open to trying them. Get the facts on alternative medicine.|
|Fibromyalgia Fibromyalgia is a long-term condition that causes pain in a person's muscles, joints, and other soft tissues. Find out how doctors tell if a person has fibromyalgia and what can be done to treat it.|
|Seasonal Affective Disorder Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that affects some people and appears at the same time each year.|
|Lyme Disease Lyme disease can be treated if it's caught early. So read this to find out what causes it, how it's treated, and how to prevent it.|
|Mononucleosis It's sometimes called "the kissing disease," but kissing is just one of the ways that someone can catch mono.|
|Talking to Your Doctor Your best resource for health information and advice is your doctor - the person who knows you, your medical history, and accurate medical information to answer your questions.|
What to expect when coming to Akron Children's
For healthcare providers and nurses
Residency & Fellowships, Medical Students, Nursing and Allied Health
For prospective employees and career-seekers
Our online community that provides inspirational stories and helpful information.