Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is a long-term health condition with the most common symptom being extreme tiredness. It is a life-limiting disability that can make getting out of bed extremely challenging.
Unfortunately, CFS does not have any known causes, and the condition is difficult to diagnose, therefore there is not a specific test for it. CFS may not always present on its own – often it presents comorbidly with other medical or mental health conditions.
It’s estimated that up to 1 in 250 people in the UK have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, to varying degrees of severity. But what can we do to alleviate the symptoms? Is chronic fatigue curable at all? And what makes it different from regular tiredness and exhaustion? In this blog, we’ll cover all of this and more; starting with defining and understanding Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, sometimes known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), is a complex, long-term illness that has a wide range of different symptoms and levels of severity.
Anyone can get CFS, including children, but it is most common in women and tends to develop between the mid-20s and mid-40s. There’s no known cause for the condition, but some theories suggest it could be a result of:
More recently, there is growing evidence that long-Covid patients go on to experience CFS – namely extreme fatigue.
CFS shares a lot of symptoms with chronic pain, most notably aching joints and muscles. However, the most common symptom that comes with CFS is extreme exhaustion. Other common symptoms include:
As previously mentioned, people with CFS experience these symptoms to varying degrees of severity. Someone with mild chronic fatigue for example may still be able to socialise and engage with their day-to-day work and activities, however, they may need to rest more frequently.
A more moderate presentation of CFS might see an individual having to make significant changes to their lifestyle in order to manage their exhaustion levels. A person with moderate CFS might need to reduce their working hours, and their level of engagement in their day-to-day activities. Making such significant changes in their lives can have a knock-on impact on their mood and self-esteem.
Severe chronic fatigue can be extremely debilitating for an individual, and it can have a significant impact on independence and mental well being, forcing drastic changes to someone’s life and often taking their independence.
Without a comprehensive understanding of the underlying causes behind Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, an out-and-out cure isn’t currently available. However, research has shown that treatment can help to make the condition more manageable.
The two main types of treatments that are employed to help alleviate some of the symptoms of CFS. The first is prescribed medications, which target specific issues such as nausea or depression in order to make the day-to-day symptoms as manageable as possible.
The other course of action for treating CFS is through private therapy such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or Graded Exercise Therapy (GET), which are available at specialist clinics. CBT aims to reduce the stress caused by CFS, which in turn makes the symptoms easier to manage. This will involve reframing any negative beliefs about your condition. For example, if you feel like you’ll never be able to get out in your garden again because you feel so weak and tired, your therapist will help you replace this thought with something that’s more helpful and can support your
Our thoughts and beliefs have a big impact on how we feel and how our body responds. Whilst adjusting these thoughts and beliefs won’t cure CFS, having more balanced and accepting thoughts can help you make the appropriate adjustments you need to get the most out of life while living with CFS. The therapists will also go through various pain management techniques such as mindfulness which can also be a great support for someone living with CFS.
GET, on the other hand, is a structured exercise programme that introduces different types of activity to slowly raise your heart rate. You and your therapist might decide on specific long-term or short-term goals, such as being able to walk to the shops, to help your body adjust to more activity so that you can do more of the things you like to do.
While CFS is currently not a curable condition, most people find that they improve over time – especially if they are engaging in these types of treatment.
Alongside medication and therapies, people with chronic fatigue can find ways to better manage their condition by making certain changes to their lifestyle.
A balanced diet, and eating regularly, can have a good impact on your energy levels, so making sure to eat well and consistently is important. However, there are aspects of CFS that can make this more difficult, for example if you don’t have the energy to make a meal or have frequent bouts of nausea. Your care team – whether that’s your doctor or your therapist – will be able to give you practical advice on how to achieve this in a way that suits your needs.
If you’re struggling with exhaustion and extreme fatigue, it’s likely that you are not getting the right amount of sleep. Those with chronic fatigue often report that they have difficulties getting to sleep, need excessive amounts of sleep, have restless or unrefreshing sleep, or find that they sleep all day and can’t sleep at night. A normal sleeping pattern won’t fix these issues, but they might help to make sleeping at night more restful. Your doctor can also give you advice on the best way of resting during the day, so as not to have an impact on your night’s rest.
In moderate or severe cases of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, you may find that you can better manage your symptoms with additional equipment or changes to your work/study environment. Wheelchairs, stairlifts and blue badges for parking may be useful for those with limited mobility. Again, your care team will be best placed to help you consider your options and the best ways to improve your energy levels day-to-day.
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