Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

As of 2007, more than one per cent of the Canadian population has been diagnosed with chronic fatigue; that's more than 420,000 Canadians.

Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define Chronic fatigue syndrome, or CFS, as "a debilitating and complex disorder characterized by profound fatigue that is not improved by bed rest and that may be worsened by physical or mental activity. Persons with CFS most often function at a substantially lower level of activity than they were capable of before the onset of illness. In addition to these key defining characteristics, patients report various nonspecific symptoms, including weakness, muscle pain, impaired memory and/or mental concentration, insomnia, and post-exertional fatigue lasting more than 24 hours."

The condition affects women at four times the rate of men. Most often it affects people in their 40s or older.

There is no specific laboratory test for the illness. As with most of the illnesses on this website, it is a diagnosis by exclusion (ruling out other causes).

"Most sufferers have an energy level 50 per cent of normal and many people become chronically disabled from the condition and be unable to work," says Dr. Alison Bested, the author of Hope and Help for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome & Fibromyaligia.

"There is a genetic propensity, we know that now," says Bested. "So there is some genetic testing being done and they can show that people with chronic fatigue syndrome are different."

CFS can persist for months or years. It can gradually improve over time, but a lot of people do not recover.

Primary Symptoms

A CFS diagnosis should be considered in patients who present with six months or more of unexplained fatigue accompanied by other characteristic symptoms. These symptoms include:

  • cognitive dysfunction, including impaired memory or concentration
  • postexertional malaise lasting more than 24 hours (exhaustion and increased symptoms) following physical or mental exercise
  • unrefreshing sleep
  • joint pain (without redness or swelling)
  • persistent muscle pain
  • headaches of a new type or severity
  • tender cervical or axillary lymph nodes
  • sore throat

Other Common Symptoms

  • irritable bowel, abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea or bloating
  • chills and night sweats
  • brain fog
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • chronic cough
  • visual disturbances (blurring, sensitivity to light, eye pain or dry eyes)
  • allergies or sensitivities to foods, alcohol, odors, chemicals, medications or noise
  • difficulty maintaining upright position (orthostatic instability, irregular heartbeat, dizziness, balance problems or fainting)
  • psychological problems (depression, irritability, mood swings, anxiety, panic attacks)
  • jaw pain
  • weight loss or gain

Until a cure or a medication can be found, all that patients can do is to re-arrange their lifestyles and manage each of the symptoms.

Patients must pace themselves and listen to their bodies to prevent "crashing". They must have a regular sleep routine that they stick to.

The CDC offers a collection of toolkits on their site aimed at professionals who are treating patients with CFS. Two of them that I thought might be most useful to read are:

Managing Symptoms (pdf)

Managing Activities (pdf)