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Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

What is chronic fatigue syndrome?

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is characterized by profound tiredness, regardless of bed rest. Its symptoms may worsen with physical or mental activity. CFS can happen suddenly and last for years. The condition affects more females than males.

What causes chronic fatigue syndrome?

The cause of CFS is not known.

Who is at risk for chronic fatigue syndrome?

Because the cause of CFS is not known, it’s hard to know what might put someone at risk for getting the condition. However, certain factors are seen more often in people with CFS. These factors include:

  • Gender. CFS happens up to 4 times more often in women than in men.
  • Age. CFS commonly affects middle-aged people, but people of any age can get it.

What are the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome?

Symptoms of CFS often mimic the flu. The following are the most common symptoms of CFS. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Headache
  • Tender lymph nodes
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Insomnia
  • Forgetfulness
  • Mood swings
  • Confusion
  • Low-grade fever
  • Depression

The symptoms of CFS may look like other medical conditions. Always talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is chronic fatigue syndrome diagnosed?

CFS diagnosis depends on two criteria:

  1. Severity and duration. The severe and chronic tiredness lasts for more than 6 months and other medical conditions have been ruled out.
  2. Number of symptoms.  Four or more symptoms of CFS are present.

A specific treatment for CFS has yet to be proven effective. Vitamin supplements and medicines have some benefit. Many treatments just relieve the symptoms of CFS.

How is chronic fatigue syndrome treated?

Treatment is determined by your healthcare provider and based on:

  • Your overall health and medical history
  • Extent of the condition
  • Your tolerance for specific medicines, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the condition
  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • Medicine, including corticosteroids, antidepressants, and others
  • Light-intensity aerobic exercise (but avoid moderate to vigorously intense physical activity) 
  • Dietary supplements and herbal preparations
  • Psychotherapy and supportive counseling

Living with chronic fatigue syndrome

There is currently no cure for chronic fatigue syndrome. Dealing with the severe fatigue can be very challenging. It is important that you work with your healthcare provider to find treatments that help you. Some people find counseling or support groups helpful.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

If your symptoms get worse or you have new symptoms, let your healthcare provider know.

Key points about chronic fatigue syndrome

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome is characterized by profound tiredness.
  • Symptoms often worsen with physical or mental activity.
  • In addition to severe fatigue, symptoms include light sensitivity, headache, muscle and joint pain, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, and depression.
  • Treatments may include medicines, exercise, supplements, and counseling.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewer: Lentnek, Arnold, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Moloney Johns, Amanda, PA-C, MPAS, BBA
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2016
© 2000-2016 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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