Demystifying ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’

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December 29, 2014


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The cause of “chronic fatigue syndrome”  (CFS) has long been somewhat of a mystery to physicians and a frustrating burden to sufferers.

But now there are new studies that indicate there could be physiological dysfunctions associated with CFS, providing potential breakthroughs for patients and their doctors.

In the most recent study, published by the journal Radiology, researchers at Stanford University compared brain images of 15 patients with CFS to those of 14 healthy people. Researchers found differences in both the white matter, the nerve structures that transmit signals between parts of the brain, and the gray matter, the areas where these signals are processed.

In another brain study, published in March by The Journal of Nuclear Medicine, researchers from Osaka City University used functional PET imaging to show that levels of neuroinflammation, or inflammation of the nervous system, are higher in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome than in healthy people. The researchers reported widespread cerebral inflammation in the patients. They also found that those with the most severe cases of the illness had more inflammation.

For people suffering from diagnosed chronic fatigue syndrome, the studies may add legitimacy to a condition which is often blamed on psychological problems or emotional stress, especially after ruling out physiological causes.

Chronic fatigue syndrome is twice as common in women. CFS can be debilitating for many people, characterized by profound fatigue that does not improve with bed rest, and that may worsen with physical or mental activity.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms affect several body systems and may include weakness, muscle pain, impaired memory and/or mental concentration, and insomnia, which can result in reduced participation in daily activities.

“The most important thing is to rule out any organic causes, utilizing extensive lab work and a thorough family history, and screening for any issues related to blood sugar, the thyroid and the immune system,” says Patricia Feito, M.D., a family medicine specialist affiliated with Baptist Health.

A program of improved nutrition and exercise will likely be part of any treatment, Dr. Feito says, to determine if there is any reduction in the severity or frequency of symptoms.

A diagnosis of CFS can be difficult because fatigue is a symptom of many other conditions, including various pulmonary, immunological and cardiovascular disorders.

If out-of-the-ordinary fatigue cannot be explained and lasts for weeks, patients should see their primary doctor,  Dr. Feito says.

“You might be thinking: ‘I used to be very active, but now I can’t take care of my kids or climb stairs or ride a bike.’ The fatigue is usually severe enough to reduce daily activity by 50 percent or more,” she says.

Chronic fatigue syndrome has eight official signs and symptoms, plus the central symptom that gives the condition its name:

  • Frequent or continued fatigue.
  • Loss of memory or concentration.
  • Sore throat.
  • Enlarged lymph nodes in your neck or armpits.
  • Unexplained muscle pain.
  • Pain that moves from one joint to another without swelling or redness.
  • Headache of a new type, pattern or severity.
  • Unrefreshing sleep.
  • Extreme exhaustion lasting more than 24 hours after physical or mental exercise.

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