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Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Explained—Possible Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment for Debilitating Symptoms

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If you wake up feeling unrefreshed with achy joints and muscles, suffer from a chronic scratchy sore throat, and short-term memory loss, you’re not alone. According to the Centers For Disease Control, more than one million Americans suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). This condition affects more people in the United States than lupus, multiple sclerosis, and many forms of cancer. The severe fatigue that accompanies CFS often causes problems with sleep, mood, energy, and concentration. Individuals with chronic fatigue syndrome function at a much lower level than they once did. The often, unexplained illness affects every area of life including work, school, and relationships.[2]

What is chronic fatigue syndrome?

Chronic fatigue syndrome is a collection of symptoms marked by a general feeling of unwellness, and extreme fatigue that doesn’t go away even after many hours of sleep. Chronic fatigue syndrome affects an individual’s ability to engage in many ordinary daily tasks and activities.[4]


Other symptoms that accompany chronic fatigue syndrome include:

  • Headaches
  • Tender lymph nodes
  • Sleep disorders
  • Mental health issues
  • Pain that moves from joint to joint
  • A new type of headache
  • Persistent fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness[4]

People with chronic fatigue syndrome never feel rested and may suffer from anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues. Although these symptoms are generally used to help diagnose CFS, individuals may also experience difficulties with balance, trouble maintaining an upright position, fainting, food sensitivities, allergies, and sensitivities to smells, chemicals and noise. Chronic fatigue syndrome may also cause irritable bowel syndrome, night sweats and chills, sensitivity to light, eye pain, brain fog and panic attacks.[3]

Who gets chronic fatigue syndrome?

While either sex can develop CFS, women are four times more likely to suffer with the condition than men. Adults in their 40s and 50s, across all ethnic and racial groups report chronic fatigue syndrome. CFS is also more prevalent in teenagers than in young children and could possibly be genetically related.[3]

How is chronic fatigue syndrome diagnosed?

There is no single test to diagnose CFS, and symptoms can mimic other illnesses, making it difficult to confirm the syndrome.

Because many medical conditions can contribute to chronic fatigue such as, restless leg syndrome, insomnia, anemia, diabetes, and depression, only a physician can properly diagnose chronic fatigue syndrome after a thorough physical examination and mental health evaluation. Symptoms must also be present for a period of six months or more.[7]

Possible Causes of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

While doctors once dismissed chronic fatigue syndrome as a psychological illness, new research suggests that CFS may actually be caused from an infection in the body.[5] A virus, or immune reaction may initially trigger the condition, while stress, poor diet, psychological conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and persistent flu like symptoms may be risk factors for the disease.[1]

While the exact cause of chronic fatigue syndrome is not yet known for sure, in a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, Cornell researchers have found…“biological markers of the disease in gut bacteria and inflammatory microbial agents in the blood.” This gets scientists one step closer to understanding the condition, and possible reasons for the symptoms.[6]

How is chronic fatigue syndrome treated?

There is no cure for CFS, and treatment options vary depending on symptoms, both physical and emotional. Chronic fatigue syndrome is a stressful disorder and may require a combination of pharmaceutical interventions and lifestyle changes.

Drug therapies to help manage symptoms include:

  • Antidepressants
  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Pain relievers
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS)
  • Antihistamines
  • Stimulants

Complementary therapies may include counseling, meditation, yoga, support groups, and stress management techniques. Some individuals also find relief with acupuncture, chiropractic care, and physical therapy.

Lifestyle Changes

Getting proper nutrition and avoiding certain foods such as refined sugars, caffeine, alcohol, and saturated fats may help decrease some symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. Exercise has also been proven to be beneficial to individuals, as well as certain dietary supplements like magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, beta-carotene, L-carnitine, and Vitamin D.[1]

Chronic fatigue syndrome is an ongoing medical condition that often presents in cycles of illness and remission. This makes symptoms more difficult to predict and manage, as individuals are tempted to overdo activities when they’re feeling good. This can result in a relapse, or “flare-ups” of symptoms periodically.[2]


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