What Is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) & What Causes It?

It’s normal to feel tired, especially with the high-demand lifestyles many people lead today. However, feeling generally fatigued because of a lack of sleep, being overworked, or not getting enough exercise is all typically normal. It’s when that fatigue becomes inescapable that it can be a real problem. When a person feels extreme fatigue that does not cease regardless of how much rest one gets, and it isn’t attributed to an underlying health condition, it is referred to as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).

What is chronic fatigue syndrome?

Also called myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) or systemic exertion intolerance disease (SEID), chronic fatigue syndrome is a misunderstood condition. The symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome will vary depending on how severe it is. The main symptom, predictably, is extreme fatigue; however, a person with the condition can also experience chronic insomnia, sleep disorders, memory loss, reduced concentration, and orthostatic intolerance. Physical symptoms can also include muscle pain, headaches, joint pain (without swelling or redness), sore throat, and swollen lymph nodes.

For a person to be diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, their symptoms will typically need to be present and interfere with daily activities for at least six months.

How is chronic fatigue syndrome different from “regular” fatigue?

Regular fatigue typically occurs during bouts of lifestyle changes, such as a heavier workload or high-stress events. It often goes away after the change has been adapted to or with regular restful nights. In contrast, chronic fatigue syndrome does not go away, typically persisting with more symptoms than just being tired all the time.

The symptoms of “regular” fatigue tend to be caused by lifestyle factors as well such as poor diet, medications, or lack of exercise. In the case of chronic fatigue syndrome, although those may not help the condition, they aren’t typically the cause.

Other medical conditions can cause chronic fatigue as a symptom, but not be categorized as CFS. Such conditions include fibromyalgia, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.

person with chronic fatigue

Image by Shane on Unsplash: How do you fix chronic fatigue syndrome?

What causes chronic fatigue syndrome?

The root cause of chronic fatigue syndrome isn’t known. However, medical professionals suggest that there are some factors that may trigger the condition to develop, including:

  1. Viral infections. A viral infection can wreak havoc on the body, and while it is fighting off infection, chronic fatigue syndrome can end up being triggered. Some specific viral infections that have been shown to have a connection to the development of CFS are the Epstein-Barr virus, human herpes virus 6, Ross River Virus (RRV), and rubella.

  2. Weakened immune system. In those with chronic fatigue syndrome, the strength of their immune system is typically hindered. It is not known if the impairment in the immune system itself affects the body enough to actually cause the disorder, though.

  3. Hormonal changes/imbalances. Hormones play a huge role in a lot of bodily processes, from energy levels to mood regulation. Those with CFS often display hormone blood level imbalances.

  4. Trauma. Both physical and emotional trauma can affect the body greatly. Reports show that some patients with chronic fatigue syndrome have experienced an injury, surgery, or high emotional stress event prior to developing the condition.

  5. Bacterial infections. Although the connection between bacterial infections and chronic fatigue syndrome isn’t clear, some researchers have studied the potential link between the two.

  6. The end stage of another condition. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chronic fatigue syndrome may be the tail-end results of another type of infection such as a viral or bacterial infection.

There are also certain risk factors that can increase a person’s chance of developing chronic fatigue syndrome. They include:

  1. Age. Chronic fatigue syndrome is most commonly found in adults of middle age.

  2. Sex. Women are reported to suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome more frequently than men.

How do you test for chronic fatigue syndrome?

It can be difficult to diagnose chronic fatigue syndrome because many conditions can cause the same symptoms, such as sleep disorders, mental health conditions, and other health problems such as anemia. Due to this, there is no single test that can diagnose chronic fatigue syndrome. CFS can also be present in those with other health issues, and thus, making a proper diagnosis becomes even more futile.

Some doctors have suggested that since chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia have so many of the same symptoms, they may be two types of the same disease, although more research is needed to confirm that suggestion.

To diagnose chronic fatigue syndrome, doctors must follow guidelines that were put in place by the United States Institute of Medicine. The guidelines for diagnosis include:

  1. Fatigue that is so severe it hinders a person’s ability to engage in activities they were involved in prior to developing the condition

  2. The condition being newly developed or the onset being clearly outlined

  3. The condition not being relieved by any amount of rest

  4. The condition being exacerbated by physical, mental, or emotional stress or exertion

Symptoms that must also be present for a person to be diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome include memory, focus, and concentration issues, as well as dizziness that occurs when a person moves from lying down to sitting or standing. The symptoms must also be present for over six months and be moderate to severe at least half of the time.

tired man rubbing his eyes

Image by Gemma Chua-Tran on Unsplash: Chronic fatigue syndrome can happen at any age, though it typically affects people between 40 to 55.

What is the best treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome?

Since chronic fatigue syndrome is without a cure, treatment is based solely on relieving symptoms. The most prevalent or hindering symptoms are the ones that are tackled first. Some types of medications that are used to help treat the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome include:

  1. Antidepressants

  2. Medications that regulate blood pressure or heart rhythms

  3. Pain medications

Other types of treatment have shown promise in helping those with chronic fatigue syndrome. They include:

  1. Talk therapy. Therapy has been shown to help those develop coping skills when it comes to their condition.

  2. Sleep treatment. Not getting enough sleep can make chronic fatigue syndrome worse, so often, people with the disorder can benefit from addressing any sleep problems through sleep therapy or treatment.

  3. Exercise. Although participating in strenuous exercise can make chronic fatigue syndrome worse, regular, moderate activity has been shown to help prevent the body from deconditioning. Adding in low-intensity exercise and then progressing slowly over time can help to improve long-term symptoms.

Chronic fatigue syndrome can be a difficult disorder to cope with, but with the right mechanisms and medical assistance, it can be a little easier to get back to normal while dealing with the condition.

Featured image by Dogukan Sahin on Unsplash

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