Distinguishing Between Fatigue and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

by Stephanie Brail

In our busy, hectic lives, it is common to experience fatigue as a normal response to the stresses and demands of daily life. Sometimes, this fatigue can last over a period of weeks or months, due to a pressure-filled lifestyle, acute stress, or some sort of loss or setback in life. This type of “chronic fatigue” is not the same as full-blown chronic fatigue syndrome, yet many people confuse the two.

The name “chronic fatigue syndrome” is actually a misnomer, because it does not fully communicate the multitude of symptoms other than fatigue that are present with the illness. A common frustration for sufferers with chronic fatigue syndrome is to be told by someone without the illness that they understand what it's like to have CFS because they've been tired before. It is very important to emphasize that chronic fatigue syndrome is not just about chronic fatigue.

Unfortunately, those who are just tired due to life stress can mistakenly believe they have CFS due to the name “chronic fatigue syndrome.” This is why some advocate a different name for the disease, because the confusion could potentially lead to a lack of sympathy and understanding about CFS. Those who simply suffer from fatigue may not comprehend the full magnitude and impact of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Because of this, some choose to call the illness “chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome” (or CFIDS), and others prefer the British name, “myalgic encephalomyelitis.”

Furthermore, fatigue can be a presenting symptom in a number of other serious and potentially fatal diseases, so it is important to determine what type of fatigue you have.

So if you are feeling fatigued, how do you know whether it's full-blown chronic fatigue syndrome or not? Check with your doctor. Currently, there is no blood test for chronic fatigue syndrome. Instead, chronic fatigue syndrome is diagnosed by a method called “exclusion.” This means that the doctor will interview you and possibly give you various blood tests to rule out or “exclude” any other possible problems that could cause the chronic fatigue.

A few hallmark symptoms generally occur with people who have chronic fatigue syndrome that distinguish the syndrome from just chronic fatigue:

  • Aches and pains in the muscles and joints (at its extreme, this becomes fibromyalgia)
  • “Brain fog” (an inability to think or concentrate)
  • Chronic flu-like symptoms such as swollen glands and general achiness
  • Post-exertional malaise, also known as post-exercise malaise, which is an increase in fatigue and other symptoms following strenuous activity or exercise

Chronic fatigue syndrome, unlike general fatigue, cannot be cured simply by taking a vacation or getting additional rest.

Because chronic fatigue syndrome can become a debilitating disease if not properly managed, and the symptom of fatigue could be caused by an even more serious illness, it is important to speak to a doctor and get tested as soon as possible if your fatigue lasts six months or more. Finding a doctor who is familiar with and has worked with patients with chronic fatigue syndrome will increase your chances of getting the proper diagnosis and care.


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