Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) causes severe and persistent physical and mental exhaustion. It is known by other names, such as ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis), CFIDS (chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome) and PVFS (post-viral fatigue syndrome). Around 250,000 people in the UK have chronic fatigue syndrome. It's most common in women and middle-aged adults, however children can also be affected.
The tiredness felt as a result of chronic fatigue is not relieved by rest or sleep. For some people, symptoms are continuous, for other they fluctuate. The severity of the symptoms also varies between individuals. Those with mild symptoms are usually able to adapt and continue with most activities, however severe symptoms may leave an individual housebound.
For those whose symptoms fluctuate, often the symptoms can be triggered by a stressful event or period.
There is no definite answer to what causes chronic fatigue syndrome. There are arguments that some people are more genetically vulnerable to the condition, as it is more common in some families. It can also be caused by immune system weaknesses, a bacterial or viral infection, hormonal imbalance or psychological issues such as stress and trauma.
The symptoms of CFS are different for different people, somewhat depending on the severity of their condition. These symptoms can either occur suddenly, or develop over time. The condition is mainly characterised by severe tiredness - which is different from simply having low energy levels. Chronic fatigue syndrome can make simple everyday activities, such as getting dressed, an exhausting process.
Other symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome can include:
Chronic fatigue can also be emotionally draining, and an individual with CFS may develop symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. There is more about counselling for CFS below.
It is important that activity levels are managed. Planning ahead and keeping track will ensure that gradual, healthy increases in exercise and activity can be made at a suitable rate, whilst avoiding any overexertion that may prove detrimental to progress. Organising your day will help you pace yourself and give you a beneficial sense of control over your situation. Setting and achieving realistic goals will help you stay motivated.
Graded exercise therapy (GET) is utilised by many individuals with milder symptoms of CFS. It is a structured exercise programme which gradually increases in frequency and intensity. This process should be supported by a physiotherapist or other medical professional.
Make sure that you eat well to provide your body with the nutrients it needs. Eat regularly and consume foods with slow release energy.
If you have trouble sleeping, try keeping to a routine: going to bed at the same time each night, taking a relaxing bath or having a warm drink. You could also try relaxation techniques, you will find a series of mindfulness for insomnia posts on the site.
Mindfulness meditation is a helpful tool for the stress and emotional distress that having CFS may cause.
It is also important to maintain social links with friends and family. Visiting a support group can also be very beneficial; it can be a relief to talk to others who truly understand what you are coping with.
Chronic fatigue syndrome can have a devastating effect on emotional and mental health. Even with milder symptoms, the individual may be forced to give up cherished activities, their job and lifestyle, and reassess future plans. This loss - of freedom, spontaneity, financial security, hobbies - and the stress put upon personal relationships can be very difficult to adapt to.
Many CFS sufferers feel ashamed of their condition and guilty that people in their life have had to make sacrifices in order to care for them. They may feel powerless, and often struggle with self-blame, looking back and wondering what they could have done differently in the past to prevent the condition.
Frustration and fear are common in those with CFS. Attempts to continue with or increase levels of activity may fail, leading to frustration and in turn fear that the condition will never improve.
If you are a carer for someone with chronic fatigue syndrome, you might be interested in reading our advice to carers.
Last updated on 2 July 2020