Chronic fatigue syndrome is a complicated disorder characterized by extreme fatigue that can't be explained by any underlying medical condition. The fatigue may worsen with physical or mental activity, but doesn't improve with rest.

The cause of chronic fatigue syndrome is unknown, although there are many theories — ranging from viral infections to psychological stress. Some experts believe chronic fatigue syndrome might be triggered by a combination of factors.

There's no single test to confirm a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome. You may have to undergo a variety of medical tests to rule out other health problems that have similar symptoms. Treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome focuses on symptom relief.

Chronic fatigue syndrome has eight official symptoms, plus the central symptom that gives the condition its name:

  • Fatigue
  • Loss of memory or concentration
  • Sore throat
  • Enlarged lymph nodes in your neck or armpits
  • Unexplained muscle pain
  • Pain that moves from one joint to another without swelling or redness
  • Headache of a new type, pattern or severity
  • Unrefreshing sleep
  • Extreme exhaustion lasting more than 24 hours after physical or mental exercise

When to see a doctor

Fatigue can be a symptom of many illnesses, such as infections or psychological disorders. In general, see your doctor if you have persistent or excessive fatigue.

Scientists don't know exactly what causes chronic fatigue syndrome. It may be a combination of factors that affect people who were born with a predisposition for the disorder. Some of the factors that have been studied include:

  • Viral infections. Because some people develop chronic fatigue syndrome after having a viral infection, researchers have wondered if some viruses might trigger the disorder. Suspicious viruses have included Epstein-Barr, human herpesvirus 6 and mouse leukemia viruses. No conclusive link has yet been found.
  • Immune system problems. The immune systems of people who have chronic fatigue syndrome appear to be impaired slightly, but it's unclear if this impairment is enough to actually cause the disorder.
  • Hormonal imbalances. People who have chronic fatigue syndrome also sometimes experience abnormal blood levels of hormones produced in the hypothalamus, pituitary gland or adrenal glands. But the significance of these abnormalities is still unknown.

Factors that may increase your risk of chronic fatigue syndrome include:

  • Age. Chronic fatigue syndrome can occur at any age, but it most commonly affects people in their 40s and 50s.
  • Your sex. Women are diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome much more often than men, but it may be that women are simply more likely to report their symptoms to a doctor.
  • Lifestyle. People who are overweight and inactive are more likely to develop chronic fatigue syndrome. Stress also appears to be a factor.

Possible complications of chronic fatigue syndrome include:

  • Depression
  • Social isolation
  • Lifestyle restrictions
  • Increased work absences

It can be difficult to absorb all the information provided to you during an appointment, so you might want to arrange for a friend or family member to accompany you. Having two sets of ears at an appointment can be very helpful.

What you can do

Before your appointment, you may want to write a list that includes:

  • Your signs and symptoms. Be thorough. While fatigue may be affecting you most, other symptoms — such as memory problems or headache — are also important to share with your doctor.
  • Key personal information. Recent changes or major stressors in your life can play a very real role in your physical well-being.
  • Health information. List any other conditions for which you're being treated and the names of any medications, vitamins or supplements you take regularly.
  • Questions to ask your doctor. Creating your list of questions in advance can help you make the most of your time with your doctor.

For chronic fatigue syndrome, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:

  • What are the possible causes of my symptoms or condition?
  • What tests do you recommend?
  • If these tests don't pinpoint the cause of my symptoms, what additional tests might I need?
  • On what basis would you make a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome?
  • Are there any treatments or lifestyle changes that could help my symptoms now?
  • What activity level should I aim for while we're seeking a diagnosis?
  • Do you recommend that I also see a mental health provider?

In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that you don't understand something.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may reserve time to go over any points you want to spend more time on. Your doctor may ask:

  • What are your symptoms and when did they begin?
  • Does anything make your symptoms better or worse?
  • Do you have problems with memory or concentration?
  • Are you having problems sleeping?
  • How often do you feel depressed or anxious?
  • How much do your symptoms limit your ability to function? For example, have you ever had to miss school or work because of your symptoms?
  • What treatments have you tried so far for this condition? How have they worked?

There's no single test to confirm a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome. Because the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome can mimic so many other health problems, you may need patience while waiting for a diagnosis. Your doctor must rule out a number of other illnesses before diagnosing chronic fatigue syndrome. These may include:

  • Sleep disorders. Chronic fatigue can be caused by sleep disorders. A sleep study can determine if your rest is being disturbed by disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome or insomnia.
  • Medical problems. Fatigue is a common symptom in several medical conditions, such as anemia, diabetes and underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism). Lab tests can check your blood for evidence of some of the top suspects.
  • Mental health issues. Fatigue is also a symptom of a variety of mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. A counselor can help determine if one of these problems is causing your fatigue.

Diagnostic criteria

To meet the diagnostic criteria of chronic fatigue syndrome, you must have unexplained, persistent fatigue for six months or more, along with at least four of the following signs and symptoms:

  • Loss of memory or concentration
  • Sore throat
  • Enlarged lymph nodes in your neck or armpits
  • Unexplained muscle pain
  • Pain that moves from one joint to another without swelling or redness
  • Headache of a new type, pattern or severity
  • Unrefreshing sleep
  • Extreme exhaustion lasting more than 24 hours after physical or mental exercise

Treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome focuses on symptom relief.

Medications

  • Antidepressants. Many people who have chronic fatigue syndrome are also depressed. Treating your depression can make it easier for you to cope with the problems associated with chronic fatigue syndrome. And low doses of some antidepressants also can help improve sleep and relieve pain.
  • Sleeping pills. If home measures, such as avoiding caffeine, don't help you get better rest at night, your doctor might suggest trying prescription sleep aids.

Therapy

The most effective treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome appears to be a two-pronged approach that combines psychological counseling with a gentle exercise program.

  • Graded exercise. A physical therapist can help determine what types of exercise are best for you. Inactive people often begin with range-of-motion and stretching exercises for just a few minutes a day. If you're exhausted the next day, you're doing too much. Your strength and endurance will improve as you gradually increase the intensity of your exercise over time.
  • Psychological counseling. Talking with a counselor can help you figure out options to work around some of the limitations that chronic fatigue syndrome imposes on you. Feeling more in control of your life can improve your outlook dramatically.

These self-care steps may be helpful:

  • Reduce stress. Develop a plan to avoid or limit overexertion and emotional stress. Allow yourself time each day to relax. That may mean learning how to say no without guilt.
  • Improve sleep habits. Go to bed and get up at the same time each day. Limit daytime napping and avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.
  • Pace yourself. Keep your activity on an even level. If you do too much on your good days, you may have more bad days.

Many alternative therapies have been promoted for chronic fatigue syndrome. It's difficult to determine whether these therapies actually work, partly because the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome often are linked to mood and can vary from day to day.

Pain associated with chronic fatigue syndrome may be helped by:

  • Acupuncture
  • Massage
  • Yoga or tai chi

The experience of chronic fatigue syndrome varies from person to person. For many people, however, the symptoms are more bothersome early in the course of the illness and then gradually decrease. Emotional support and counseling may help you and your loved ones deal with the uncertainties and restrictions of chronic fatigue syndrome.

You may find it therapeutic to join a support group and meet other people with chronic fatigue syndrome. Support groups aren't for everyone, and you may find that a support group adds to your stress rather than relieving it. Experiment and use your own judgment to determine what's best for you.

Jun. 18, 2011