Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Causes and 8 Symptoms

Chronic fatigue syndrome, or CFS, is a devastating and complex disorder. People with CFS have overwhelming fatigue, and a host of other symptoms that are not improved by bed rest and that can get worse after physical activity or mental exertion. They often function at a substantially lower level of activity than they were capable of before they became ill.

Jay Harold used information from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to provide insight into this often confusing condition that affects more than one million Americans1. CFS occurs four times more frequently in women than in men, although people of either sex can develop the disease.

MedlinePlus states that Chronic fatigue syndrome2 is most common in women in their 40s and 50s, but anyone can have it. It can last for years.

Besides severe fatigue, other symptoms include muscle pain, impaired memory or mental concentration, insomnia, and post-exertion malaise lasting more than 24 hours.

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Researchers have not yet identified what causes CFS, and there are no tests to diagnose CFS. Moreover, because many illnesses have fatigue as a symptom, doctors need to take care to rule out other conditions, which may be treatable.

Case Definition and Symptoms of CFS

There are several case definitions3 for CFS, and all require fatigue as one of the symptoms. The CDC uses the 1994 CFS case definition, which requires meeting three criteria:

  1. The individual has had severe chronic fatigue for 6 or more consecutive months, and the fatigue 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)
    Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Causes and 8 Symptoms

    Pain in the joints without swelling or redness is a symptom of Chronic Fatigue.

  2. The fatigue significantly interferes with daily activities and work
  3. The individual concurrently has 4 or more of the following 8 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 6 or more consecutive months of illness, and they cannot have first appeared before the fatigue.

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Causes of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Despite a vigorous search, scientists have not yet identified what causes CFS. While a single cause for CFS may yet be identified, another possibility is that CFS has multiple triggers. Some of the possible causes of CFS might be:

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The symptoms listed above are the symptoms used to diagnose this illness. However, many CFS patients may experience other symptoms, including irritable bowel, depression or other psychological problems, chills and night sweats, visual disturbances, brain fog, difficulty maintaining an upright position, dizziness, balance problems, fainting, and allergies or sensitivities to foods, odors, chemicals, medications, or noise.

Diagnosis of CFS

Because there is no blood test, brain scan, or another lab test to diagnose CFS, it is a diagnosis that can only be made after ruling out other possible illnesses. A doctor will first take a detailed patient history and then will conduct a thorough physical and mental health exam. Next, a series of laboratory screening tests will be ordered to help identify or rule out other possible causes of symptoms. There may also be additional tests to follow up on results of these tests. If a patient has had severe fatigue for 6 months or longer but does not does not have at least 4 of the 8 symptoms of CFS (and thus, does not meet the criteria for a CFS diagnosis), the doctor may make a diagnosis of idiopathic fatigue (fatigue with an unknown cause). As a practical matter, patients with idiopathic fatigue are managed like CFS patients.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Causes and 8 Symptoms

CFS occurs four times more frequently in women than in men.

A clinician should consider a diagnosis of CFS if these three criteria are met:

  1. The individual has unexplained, persistent fatigue for 6 months or longer that is not due to ongoing exertion, is not substantially relieved by rest, has begun recently (is not lifelong)
  2. The fatigue significantly interferes with daily activities and work
  3. The individual has had 4 or more of the following 8 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
    • a sore throat that is frequent or recurring
    • tender lymph nodes in the neck or armpit
    • headaches of a new type, pattern, or severity

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Management of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Managing chronic fatigue syndrome can be as complex as the illness itself. There is no cure, no prescription drugs have been developed specifically for CFS, and symptoms can vary a lot over time. Thus, people with CFS should closely monitor their health and let their doctor know of any changes; and physicians should regularly monitor their patients’ conditions and adjust treatment strategies as needed.

The CDC suggest that treating the most disruptive symptoms4 first as prioritized by the patient, but only after underlying conditions applicable to those symptoms have been investigated and excluded. These may include:

  1. Fatigue Due to Sleep Problems
  2. Pain
  3. Memory and Concentration Problems
  4. Depression and Anxiety
  5. Dizziness and Lightheadedness

A team approach that involves doctors and patients is one key to managing CFS. Patients benefit when they can work in collaboration with a team of doctors and other health care practitioners, who might include rehabilitation specialists, mental health professionals, and physical or exercise therapists. Together, they can create an individualized treatment program that best meets the needs of the patient with CFS. This program should be based on a combination of therapies that address symptoms, coping techniques, and managing normal daily activities.

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Bibliography

  1. http://www.cdc.gov/cfs/causes/risk-groups.html
  2. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/chronicfatiguesyndrome.html#cat79
  3. http://www.cdc.gov/cfs/case-definition/index.html
  4. http://www.cdc.gov/cfs/management/treating-symptoms.html

2 comments

  1. Carolyn

    I have had this illness for over 20 years, and I struggle to make a living. As an AA woman, who is ill, I have no social support, as no one believes me. I am unmarried because most men are intolerant of this illness. I have no children. I live alone in social isolation. I am able to work, but that is all I can do: I can’t go to church, hardly grocery shop, I sleep in my clothes to make it the next day, and I never go out. I go to work and then I sleep. As a child I was called lazy because I slept. As an adult, I am labeled a hermit. But the reality is, I am sick, and because no one believes me, I cannot get any help. I cannot get disability or even a friend to bring food. People do come around when they need money or help from me.

    This illness is devastaing. There are weeks when I am too tired to call a friend or pick up the phone. Then, when I feel better, I get out and about, and I look well. That is, the only time people see me is when I am having good days so they think I am well.

    White women have husbands who support them. We do not.

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