Chronic fatigue

Chronic fatigue – sometimes referred to as “chronic fatigue syndrome” or CFS –  is characterized by severe fatigue that lasts for at least six months. It typically worsens with extended mental or physical activity, and is not resolved through rest.

CFS is not fully understood

The cause of chronic fatigue syndrome is still largely unknown, although it is believed that some patients may be born with a susceptibility to the disorder which is later provoked by potential triggers.

Criteria for CFS diagnosis

CFS fatigue is worsened by physical, mental or emotional exertion. It is so severe that it interferes with an individual’s ability to engage in pre-illness activities.

Persons diagnosed with CFS experience at least one of these two symptoms:

  • Difficulties with memory, focus and concentration.
  • Dizziness that worsens with moving from lying down or sitting to standing.

These symptoms must last for at least six months and occur at least half the time at moderate, substantial or severe intensity.

Symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome

The symptoms and severity of chronic fatigue syndrome can vary from person to person and may include:

  • Dizziness that worsens with moving from lying down or sitting to standing.
  • Enlarged lymph nodes in your neck or armpits.
  • Extreme exhaustion after physical or mental exercise.
  • Fatigue.
  • Headaches.
  • Problems with memory or concentration.
  • Sore throat.
  • Unexplained muscle or joint pain.
  • Unrefreshing sleep.

Causes of chronic fatigue

lady looking into the distance

The cause of chronic fatigue syndrome is still largely unknown, although it is believed that some patients may be born with a susceptibility to the disorder which is later provoked by potential triggers.

These possible triggers include:

  • Hormonal imbalances. Sometimes, individuals with chronic fatigue syndrome undergo abnormal blood levels of hormones produced in the endocrine glands. This said, the significance of this hormonal imbalance is still largely unknown.
  • Immune system problems. Individuals with chronic fatigue syndrome often show signs of a weakened immune system.
  • Physical or emotional trauma. Prior to the appearance of initial chronic fatigue syndrome symptoms in patients, some reported having just undergone surgery, emotional stress or physical trauma.
  • Viral infections. Although no definitive link has been found, some researchers have begun theorizing that the diagnosis of a viral infection may trigger this disease in some individuals. Viruses individuals have become particularly wary of are the Epstein-Barr virus and human herpesvirus 6.

Diagnosing chronic fatigue syndrome

The nature of the fatigue

As established by the United States Institute of Medicine, the fatigue associated with CFS is characterized as:

  • A fatigue that is worsened by physical, mental or emotional exertion and is so severe that it interferes with an individual’s ability to engage in pre-illness activities.
  • Of new or definite onset (not lifelong).
  • Not substantially alleviated by rest.

Symptoms

To meet the Institute of Medicine’s diagnostic criteria for chronic fatigue syndrome, a person would also need to experience at least one of these two symptoms:

  • Difficulties with memory, focus and concentration.
  • Dizziness that worsens with moving from lying down or sitting to standing.

These symptoms must last for at least six months and occur at least half the time at moderate, substantial or severe intensity.

Treatments for chronic fatigue syndrome

While there is no known cure for chronic fatigue syndrome, there are several available treatments to help alleviate the disruptive symptoms:

Medications

Some problems associated with chronic fatigue syndrome can be improved with either prescription or over-the-counter medications. Examples include prescribed pain and depression medications and blood-pressure medications.

Therapy

Attending therapy and counseling sessions can be extremely beneficial in the lives of CFS patients. Taking part in counseling can help provide coping mechanisms for disruptive symptoms, manage depression, build confidence and strengthen family dynamics. Plus, counseling can provide additional support when navigating limitations in both school and work.

Addressing sleep problems

Dealing with sleep deprivation, regardless of the severity, has the potential to make additional symptoms even more difficult to address. Your healthcare provider may encourage you to alter your bedtime routine or limit your caffeine intake to aid in your sleep problems.

Exercise

Engaging in exercises that are of low, or slowly increasing intensity are most beneficial for CFS patients. Partaking in high-intensity, aggressive forms of exercise may lead to worsened symptoms so keeping to a low-intensity exercise regimen will help to improve the long-term health and function of a CFS patient.

Provider and patient having a discussion

 

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about chronic fatigue

Chronic fatigue syndrome may be a variant of an autoimmune disease but is not one in and of itself. Instead, CFS is often spurred by infections and may involve a genetic predisposition.

A CFS crash often presents itself as a period of extended fatigue and physical/mental immobilization.

In some patients, a CFS crash may also be accompanied by virus-like symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes and a fever.

Yes. The three types of fatigue are transient, cumulative and circadian.

  • Transient fatigue is a severe fatigue in response to staying awake for prolonged periods of time within the span of one to two days.
  • Cumulative fatigue is often in response to either a mild, continuous sleep restriction or staying awake for prolonged periods of time over the course of several days.
  • Circadian fatigue typically arises from a lack of sleep occurring during a person’s window of “circadian low” which often falls between 2 and 6 a.m.

The classification of chronic fatigue syndrome as a disability varies from person to person and is dependent on Social Security’s assessment of the severity of each patient’s case, including the effect your CFS limitations may have on your ability to work a full-time job. If they conclude that your chronic fatigue is severe, they will then determine your disability status.

 

Though some studies have found a correlation between increased suicide/mortality rates and CFS patients, there is no definitive evidence that supports the claim that CFS shortens a patient’s life.