Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Everyone gets tired and feels run down from time to time, but usually a good night’s sleep and rest gets us back on our feet and feeling re-energized. However, for people with chronic fatigue syndrome that’s not the case. The tiredness is not so easily relieved and can interfere with day-to-day functioning. Most prevalent in people aged 40-59, the syndrome affects at least one million Americans in every ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic group, and millions more suffer worldwide.[1] Read on to learn more.

Definition of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as chronic fatigue immune dysfunction and Myalgic encephalomyelitis, refers to severe, continued tiredness that is not relieved by rest and is not directly caused by other medical conditions.[2] The syndrome is a complex and debilitating chronic illness that affects the brain and multiple body systems.[1]

Signs & Symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Chronic fatigue syndrome has eight official symptoms, plus the central symptom of fatigue:[3]

  • Fatigue that lasts at least 6 months and is not relieved by rest
  • Loss of memory or concentration
  • Sore throat
  • Enlarged lymph nodes in 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

Causes of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

The exact cause of chronic fatigue syndrome is unknown. Many different infectious agents, physiologic causes and psychological factors have been considered. Much of the ongoing research into a cause now centers on the roles the brain and the immune, endocrine, cardiovascular and autonomic nervous systems may play in the syndrome.[1] Some theories suggest chronic fatigue syndrome may be due to the following:[2]

  • Epstein-Barr virus or human herpes virus-6 (HHV-6); however, no specific virus has been identified as the cause
  • Inflammation in the nervous system, because of a faulty immune system response

The following may also play a role:

  • Age
  • Previous illnesses
  • Stress
  • Genetics
  • Environmental factors

Depression does not cause chronic fatigue syndrome, but the two illnesses often coexist. The physical symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome and depression are different.[1]

Effects of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

The following complications may develop for someone with chronic fatigue syndrome.[2,3]

  • Depression
  • Inability to participate in work and social activities, which can lead to isolation
  • Side effects to medication or treatments
  • Lifestyle restrictions

Treatments for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

There is no known cure for chronic fatigue syndrome and no prescription drugs have been developed specifically for it. Since the symptoms vary over time, it can be complicated to treat, but treatment focuses on symptom relief through the following.[3,4]


Antidepressants. Since many people who have chronic fatigue syndrome are also depressed, treating depression can make it easier to cope with the problems associated with chronic fatigue syndrome. Plus, low doses of some antidepressants can help improve sleep and relieve pain.

Sleeping pills. Sleep aids might be helpful if other measures such as avoiding caffeine, don’t help with getting rest at night.


The most effective treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome appears to be the combination of psychological counseling with gentle exercise.

Graded exercise. Exercises planned out by a physical therapist can help.

Psychological counseling. Talking with a counselor can help uncover ways to deal with the limitations that chronic fatigue syndrome imposes, as well as how to feel more in control of one’s life.

Alternative Medicine

Since the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome are linked to mood and can vary from day to day, it’s difficult to determine whether alternative therapies actually work, but complementary therapies like acupuncture, gentle massage, deep breathing, relaxation therapy, yoga, or tai chi might help increase energy and decrease pain in people with chronic fatigue syndrome.[4]


  1. CFIDS Association of America. Basic CFS Overview Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. [PDF] Retrieved February 4, 2013, from
  2. US National Library of Medicine. Chronic fatigue syndrome. Retrieved February 4, 2013, from
  3. Mayo Clinic. Chronic fatigue syndrome. Retrieved February 4, 2013, from
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome A Toolkit for Providers. [PDF] Retrieved February 4, 2013, from

By C. J. Newton, MA, Editor

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