Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
For now, sufferers of chronic fatigue syndrome struggle to ease the symptoms.
[Photo: Getty Images]
|Signs of Trouble
Other common symptoms
|Sources: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention|
Chronic fatigue syndrome is so debilitating, many people who suffer from it can no longer do their jobs.
Until about 10 years ago, chronic fatigue and a list of other ailments linked to it were thought to be largely psychological, brought on by stress.
Today, doctors still don’t know what causes the illness but are learning and taking steps to diagnose it with evidence from medical tests instead of questions about intangible symptoms. By testing blood and spinal fluid and studying images of the brain, doctors can use biomarkers to answer questions from insurance carriers and employers who may be concerned the person is imagining the symptoms, says Dr. Roland Staud, a professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology at the University of Florida.
Staud has been studying chronic fatigue syndrome and related illnesses for more than a dozen years. Diagnosing them is tricky because the symptoms overlap with other illnesses, including fibromyalgia, lupus, myalgic encephalomyelitis, neurasthenia, multiple chemical sensitivities and chronic mononucleosis.
More than a million Americans suffer from chronic fatigue, but the Centers for Disease Control believes tens of millions experience the symptoms without meeting the strict criteria to define the syndrome. Women — most in their 40s and 50s — are four times more likely to get it than men and children.
One of the biggest challenges is knowing where to turn for a diagnosis and treatment.
“We don’t have anybody who’s designated to evaluate and treat these individuals because the knowledge about the pathogens is relatively new, and it hasn’t hit medical schools and postgraduate training,” Staud says. “There’s currently no real specialty that feels competent to treat these individuals, so frequently they end up with immunologists or infectious disease specialists, who often are not equipped or do not have the appropriate knowledge to deal with these individuals.”
There’s no known cure for chronic fatigue syndrome, but medical professionals are trying to treat the symptoms enough to help patients become more self-sufficient, Staud says.
Treatment is tailored to the patient because everyone’s symptoms are different, according to the CDC. Doctors usually recommend lifestyle changes, including reduced physical exertion, diet restrictions and physical therapy. They also prescribe drugs to treat sleep deprivation, pain and other symptoms.
Sometimes people with chronic fatigue seek counseling and join support groups to deal with anxiety and depression that come with facing a long-term illness. Others try alternative therapy, including deep breathing, muscle relaxation, massage, yoga and tai chi.