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Overview of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a condition where you have long-term disabling tiredness. It often has other symptoms as well such as muscle and joint pain, poor sleeping, and headaches. It is also known as ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis).

CFS affects around one in 300 people, with varying levels of severity. It is more common in women than men. The exact cause of CFS is not known and there is no specific test to diagnose it. Your doctor usually diagnoses it when you have a set of symptoms that suggests CFS.

The tiredness in CFS is different to the tiredness other people experience, and it is not improved just by resting. This can make it hard to explain to family and friends.

Though we don't fully understand what causes CFS, it is a well-recognised condition. Many doctors and therapists have experience understanding how CFS affects people. There is support to help you through your recovery from CFS.

Diagnosing CFS

Your doctor will diagnose CFS from symptoms that last more than 3 months.

The symptoms of CFS often overlap with other conditions. Other conditions with similar symptoms include anaemia and an underactive thyroid. Your doctor may do some tests to rule out these other conditions. If it is not clear if you have CFS, your doctor may refer you to a specialist for help with the diagnosis.

Treating CFS

CFS symptoms tend to change and vary in severity. Many people improve over time. The outcome is usually better for people who start good management techniques early. Some people recover completely and some people have relapses of their symptoms.

Two types of treatment are helpful for some people with CFS.

Graded exercise therapy (GET) is a gradual increase in physical activity. A physiotherapist or occupational therapist with a special interest in CFS should supervise this. Activity can help. But too much activity can make symptoms worse. It is important that this treatment be tailored to your symptoms and needs.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a psychological therapy. It looks at changing behaviours and thinking that can be harmful or unhelpful. This does not mean that the condition is in your head. CBT helps many people with long-term health problems. It can help you to cope with symptoms and come up with ways to manage your daily tasks. Physiotherapists and occupational therapists with a special interest in CFS also use CBT in their treatment.

Some people try complementary therapies for CFS and find them helpful. But there is not enough evidence to show that these treatments are effective.

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On the next page: Self-care for CFS

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed February 2019.

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Review key: HICFS-70801