What is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?

by Stephanie Brail

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a debilitating illness that affects at least one million Americans. It is marked by severe fatigue that worsens significantly after strenuous exercise or other activities (this is called post-exertional malaise). Besides fatigue, CFS is accompanied by a number of other symptoms, including "brain fog" (memory and concentration problems), insomnia and sleep disorders, flu-like symptoms, and joint pain.

Chronic fatigue syndrome is also known as chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS) and myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), although the latter term is more common in Britain. Fibromyalgia, distinguished from CFS by chronic joint and muscle pain, is potentially a variant of CFS, but that is currently not known for sure.

Who is at Risk?

More people have CFS than AIDS or lung cancer. CFS strikes across age, gender, and racial groups, although women are four times more likely to get CFS than men. Middle-aged people in their 40s and 50s are more like to have chronic fatigue syndrome, but adolescents, and more rarely children, also get the disease. While researchers have speculated that some sort of viral infection (such as Epstein-Barr) could be the trigger, CFS does not appear to be contagious. Instead, latest research seems to point to common genetic traits among patients that might cause or contribute to the disease.

Onset and Recovery

For many people with chronic fatigue syndrome, the illness began after an acute viral infection or other physical stress. Sometimes, however, the onset of the disease is a slow, gradual process over years as the person's health starts to deteriorate.

Recovery is not certain; those who recover within the first year or two seem to be more likely to stay in remission while those who have the illness longer are less likely to make a full recovery. Many experience a partial recovery but must moderate activity to avoid a significant relapse, and even then, symptoms are likely to ebb and flow over time.


Since the cause of CFS has not been found, there is no cure or definitive treatment. Some patients have responded positively to anti-depressants, anti-pain medication, cognitive behavioral therapy (to deal with stress and life adjustments), and exercise. Exercise is usually increased slowly over a period of time in what is called "graded exercise therapy," as post-exertional malaise is likely to crop up. Over time, careful exercise seems to improve the body's stamina, but it does not work for everyone.

Current Theories

Researchers have been looking into the role of viruses in triggering chronic fatigue syndrome for quite a while. More recently, genetic markers have been studied that seem to indicate a genetic component to the illness. Some researchers feel that CFS may be due to the body's inability to rebound properly after physical stress. This could explain why viral infections so often seem to trigger CFS in patients.


People with chronic fatigue syndrome face many challenges, including being taken seriously by doctors as well as by friends and family. Some still believe the disease is "all in the head" or made up by people who are actively lazy. The name "chronic fatigue syndrome" has been controversial for that very reason, since it seems to downplay the other, very real physiological problems that come with the illness, such as brain fog and joint pain.

Researchers now agree, however, that CFS is not a psychosomatic or made-up illness, and the United States Centers for Disease Control started a campaign in 2006 to educate the public about this very real and devastating disease.


(2007). CFS: Possible Causes. Retrieved August 12, 2007, from Centers for Disease Control Web site: http://www.cdc.gov/cfs/cfscauses.htm(2007). About CFS. Retrieved August 12, 2007, from Spark! The Campaign to Ignite CFS Awareness Web site: http://www.cfids.org/sparkcfs/cfs.aspCarter, D (2007, June 21).

CFS: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Retrieved August 12, 2007, from courier-journal.com Web site: http://www.courier-journal.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070621/FEATURES03/706210303

(2006, April 20). Genetics May Drive Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Retrieved August 12, 2007, from Forbes.com Web site: http://www.forbes.com/forbeslife/health/feeds/hscout/2006/04/20/hscout532266.html


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