Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a condition characterised by debilitating fatigue. It is a syndrome of unknown cause, although it frequently follows a viral infection.
In New Zealand the condition is sometimes referred to as Tapanui flu, named after an Otago town where a number of people displayed debilitating fatigue in the early 1980s. The condition is also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), post viral fatigue syndrome (PVS) and chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS).
CFS differs from the more typical types of fatigue in that it interferes with a person’s ability to participate in the activities of everyday life, sometimes for long periods of time. It can sometimes become disabling but does not appear to be progressive or life threatening.
CFS has been reported in people of all ages, socioeconomic and ethnic groups. Studies show that the average age of people with CFS is 35 years. Women tend to be affected by the condition more often than men are. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 people in New Zealand suffer from the condition. The average duration of the condition is between three and five years.
The combination, nature and severity of symptoms can vary between individuals. In some people there may be periods of relative wellbeing and periods where symptoms are problematic. For others symptoms may be constant and severe.
Symptoms may include:
- Ongoing, flu-like fatigue
- Exercise may increase symptoms
- Impaired memory or concentration
- Muscles aches, joint pain and weakness
- Sleep disturbances
- Swollen lymph nodes (glands)
- Sore throats
- Fever and chills
- Gastrointestinal problems (eg: irritable bowel syndrome).
The causes of CFS are not fully understood. It is known that as many as 60% of cases develop after a viral illness (eg: glandular fever, viral meningitis, gastrointestinal illness). Research studies have indicated that other factors may play a role in the development of the condition. These include:
- Chemical toxins
- Immune abnormalities
- Psychological disorders.
There is some thought that CFS may be caused by a number of factors- rather than one single factor, though research studies have yet to conclusively confirm this.
There is no one laboratory test that can help make the diagnosis, though blood tests may be taken to rule out other medical conditions. Typically however, blood tests do not indicate any abnormalities.
While there is no proven treatment or cure for CFS, the condition can be managed using a variety of measures. These include:
Conservation of energy
Unlike depression, where exercise may help to alleviate symptoms, in CFS sufferers it may worsen symptoms. This is not to say that exercise should be avoided in CFS sufferers, however exercise should be done gently and not all at once. Prioritise activities so the most taxing are done at the best time of the day. Plan to have a quiet day after a busy one. Resting regularly during the day for even brief rest periods (such as 5 to 10 minutes) can be helpful.
Relaxation and stress management
Finding methods of relaxation and stress
management can be helpful in reducing symptoms in some people. Stress reduction may be achieved through techniques such as meditation, biofeedback and yoga. Talking about the condition with family and friends so they understand the implications of the condition can also be helpful. Some people may find it helpful to work with a professional counsellor or psychologist to develop strategies to cope with CFS.
Eat a balanced diet with regular meals and avoid high sugar snacks. For some the elimination of problem foods and environmental chemicals is beneficial.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAID's) can be helpful in relieving pain and reducing fever. Low doses of anti-depressant medications may be prescribed in some cases. As they tend to have slight sedative affects, they can assist with sleep as well as treating depression.
Nutritional supplements containing different vitamins (eg: vitamins A, E, C and B12) may be helpful in relieving symptoms in some cases. Herbal remedies such as echinacea, garlic, ginseng and evening primrose oil may also prove effective. Other treatments such as acupuncture and massage may also prove beneficial.
The probability of finding an effective treatment increases as scientific knowledge of the syndrome increases. There are several studies in progress that may be useful in developing a treatment for CFS.
Support and information
The Associated New Zealand Myalgic Encephalomyelitis Societies Inc (ANZMES) is the national organisation providing information for sufferers of ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Their contact details are:
PO Box 36 307
Ph: (09) 269 6374
Anderson, K.N., Anderson, L.E. & Glanze, W.D. (eds.) (2006) Mosby’s medical, nursing, & allied health dictionary (6th ed.) St. Louis: Mosby-Year Book, In
Associated New Zealand ME Society (Date Unknown) What is ME? Associated New Zealand ME Society, Auckland. www.anzmes.org.nz/?page_id=9
Rowland, B., Odle, T. G. (2005) Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The Gale Encylopedia of Alternative Medicine – Second Edition. Jacqueline L. Longe, Editor. Farmington Mills, MI. Gale Group.
Last Reviewed – 5 April 2013