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Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Cause Unknown - Symptoms and Treatment Tips

Updated on November 15, 2016
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Dr John uses his Biochemistry & Physiology research background (PhD) to develop authoritative reviews of dieting, weight loss, obesity, food

If you are like me, and have a friend or relation who has been afflicted with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, you will be frustrated with its ongoing mystery that has defied major research programs. It is worse still for the unfortunate victims of this disease many of who have no understanding of the disease, why it has afflicted them and how to manage it. Even the name of the disease remains unresolved. It is also known as known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), CFS or CFS/ME. There have been on-going arguments about whether it really exists, what causes it, and how it should be treated.

This article is not designed to provide medical advice, but merely an introduction to the disease to help people understand it. If you, or your friends, family or relations show the symptoms you or they should see a doctor. Researching this article has helped me understand what a close friend has been going through for more than 12 months. For further reading see this article.

A mysterious illness
A mysterious illness | Source
Chronic fatigue symptoms can have many causes
Chronic fatigue symptoms can have many causes | Source
Chronic fatigue can be very debilitating especially for young people
Chronic fatigue can be very debilitating especially for young people | Source

Names Used for Disease

The name used to label Chronic fatigue syndrome is one of the major controversies related to the ‘diesease’.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Myalgic Encephalomyelitis
Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome
Post-Viral Fatigue Syndrome

What Causes Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Symptoms

The disease itself remains surrounded by uncertainty and many of the symptoms are shared with other diseases such as glandular fever and it may develop after a viral infection or a period of emotional turmoil. Most doctors prefer to refer to the disease or suite of symptoms as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome because fatigue the main symptom and is the best known aspect. Myalgic Encephalomyelitis has a more precise meaning and refers to inflammation of the spinal cord and brain. One of the problems is that CFS/ME may not be a single illness but a group or illnesses with multiple causes that share similar symptoms. It may be three to five separate illnesses. Like kidney failure which can be caused by many different things different causes, CFS/ME may have multiple causes. It may appear after a viral infection with a gradual transition from one set of symptoms to another making it hard to understand the cause. It can also develop gradually and one on the symptoms is the persistence of the tiredness over several weeks.

The claim that it is caused by a virus remains unconfirmed despite extensive research and several 'false-alarms'. Viruses may be a trigger or pre-cursor for CFS/ME, with many people reporting that their symptoms began after a viral infection or after a period of flu-like symptoms. Many have pointed to glandular fever is a trigger but a patient may develop symptoms five years later when patients have developed antibodies to the Epstein-Barr virus and it is unlikely to be a cause.

Several experts believe that the disease develops from a convergence of several conditions such as the following:

  • Genetic factors
  • A hyper-reactive immune system
  • Brain abnormalities
  • Viral or other infectious agents as precursors
  • Emotional or Psychiatric conditions

Most people report that they had suffered a moderate to serious physical illness (such as a viral infection) or an emotional or stressful (like an extended period of depression) before the onset of CFS. Some experts suggest that these triggers interact with the other factors to cause the disease.

While a virus pre-cursor is common, not all CFS patients show signs of viral or other infections. Although experts have disagreed on the role of infections it could be that CFS subtypes - viral-related and - non-viral may both exist (relates to CFS being a suite of illnesses).
In up to 80% of CFS cases, it starts with a flu-like condition or illness. However, there is no sound research work to show that CFS is infectious or that it is spread through casual contact, such as coughing, shaking hands or by intimate sexual contact. Though there have been multiple cases within a single family.

In most cases of CFS occur sporadically in individuals that have no contact with other CFS sufferers.

CFS has been linked with various Immune System Abnormalities but there is no consistent pattern. Others have claimed a link with allergies and the immune abnormalities linked with allergies.

Personality, psychological and social factors are strongly linked with CFS in most patients although these factors are unlikely to be primary causes. However, they may increase the susceptibility of certain people to the disorder. In many cases, CFS promotes social and psychological dysfunction.

What are the Symptoms and How is it Diagnosed?

There is no definitive test for CFS/ME, which is generally diagnosed by elimination of other conditions which share similar symptoms.

What is the Treatment for Chronic Disease Syndrome?

There is no cure and no magic treatment and the best approach is various forms of rehabilitation over long periods of time. Many of these therapies might only be treating secondary symptoms. Unfortunately the prognosis for adults is generally poor, but for children it is much better, with up to 94% recovering. This may be related to the fact the children's brains are plastic and it is easier for children to change their lifestyle - but this is largely speculation.

Overall, the recommended treatment approach includes a combination of the following:

  • Medication
  • A healthy diet
  • Antidepressant drugs in some cases
  • Sleep management techniques
  • Graded exercise and Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps some patients
  • Patients with the best prospects for recovery or improvement appear to be those who keep as active as possible and who actively seek to control and slow the progress of the disorder.

Graded Exercise

A number of studies have shown that a graded exercise program has benefits for many patients with CFS. This involves patients undertaking programs for graded more intense exercise levels tailored to their individual abilities.. Graded exercise is more effective when combined with other treatments..

Studies have found that about 75% of CFS sufferers who can exercise to some extent, particularly aerobic exercise, reported less fatigue and improved fitness and daily functioning after 12 months. Various reviews have shown that exercise therapy is beneficial for many people with CFS, particularly when combined with patient education and other treatments and strategies.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

This therapy is focused on helping CFS sufferers to regain a sense of control of their situation, and is proving beneficial for some patients. The primary goals of CBT are to improve the individual's feelings about themselves and the world and to thereby change their behavior. This involves teaching sufferers to change their approach to fatigue, improving their strategies for coping with stressful situations, and helping them manage the disorder. CBT can also be beneficial for dealing with sleep problems and for helping patients develop graded activity programs tailored for them. CBT is known to be very useful for defining and establishing limits and thresholds, that are very important for these patients. CBT is usually conducted over 6 - 20 hourly sessions. The ability of the mind to improve or cope with health problems is well known, and strategies that promote a positive outlook are generally helpful for most diseases.

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© 2011 Dr. John Anderson


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  • janderson99 profile image

    Dr. John Anderson 5 years ago from Australia on Planet Water

    Thanks for your comment

  • ALUR profile image

    ALUR 6 years ago from USA

    A very informative look at this disease. Frankly, it sound a lot like my own symptoms of depression combined with ADD. I am almost tired of all the general symptoms which makes it even harder to diagnose. I know once upon a time I used Cymbalta which took away part of the pain while assisting in focus and motivation.

    I've come to realize a year off of it, that I may have to return to it for help to cope and get rid of fatigue.