Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Symptoms, Causes and How to Cope

29 March 2019

What is chronic fatigue syndrome?

We all have days when we're exhausted from not getting enough sleep or recovering from a day of rigorous activity. But chronic fatigue syndrome (or CFS), as the name suggests, is a more serious problem. CFS, also called myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), is defined as extreme fatigue not caused by another medical condition. It's an ongoing ailment characterized by oversensitivity to normal amounts of physical or mental activity - such as feeling exhausted for more than 24 hours after exercise. CFS is not helped by getting additional rest.

What are the symptoms?

Common symptoms of CFS can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Unrefreshing sleep
  • Muscle or joint pain
  • Headaches

How do you know if you have chronic fatigue syndrome and how is it diagnosed?

CFS can be a tricky condition to diagnose, because fatigue can be a symptom of many other conditions. There is no single test to diagnose it. Doctors recommend a visit any time you're feeling extreme fatigue or exhaustion, and upon examination and testing they may rule out other conditions by elimination and arrive at CFS. But other conditions that can trigger fatigue include sleep disorders such as apnea or insomnia, medical issues such as diabetes or anemia, and a variety of mental health issues (depression is commonly linked to fatigue).

What causes chronic fatigue syndrome?

The causes of CFS are still somewhat mysterious. As with many medical conditions, people can be born predisposed. Certain viral infections can also trigger CFS, and people with impaired immune systems are more susceptible. Hormonal imbalances have also been found to play a role.

Other risk factors include:

  • Age: 40s and 50s are the most common age of diagnosis
  • Sex: Women are diagnosed with CFS more often than men - but that may be because they report symptoms more often to their doctor overall
  • Stress: Struggling to manage stress can contribute to many physical health problems, including CFS

How do you treat chronic fatigue syndrome?

Unfortunately, there is no cure per se for CFS. Treatment focuses primarily on symptom management. If chronic fatigue is determined to have been caused by depression, a physician may prescribe antidepressants. For this or any other mental health issues linked to fatigue, therapy may also be recommended. Support groups can also help ease the emotional burden of CFS, and participants can find practical help sharing tips and tricks they've learned in managing their condition.

Understand that CFS may fluctuate in intensity over time. Stretching and gradual increases in exercise can improve the physical condition of sufferers and slowly improve stamina in preparation for the more difficult periods.

How do you manage everyday life, including going to work?

Fortunately, one of the most important pieces of advice for CFS management applies to most of the general population: keep moving. Walking is an excellent form of exercise, and if you're looking to build strength and stamina, walk regularly at a comfortable pace - but don't push yourself too hard and burn out too quickly. Hand stretches and wall push-ups are also excellent low-impact exercise options. Aim to start out with one minute of activity followed by three minutes of rest. Gradually increase to five minutes of activity, but continue to allow yourself three minutes of rest in between exercise reps. If you reach a point of exhaustion, drop the activity time back down to where you were last comfortable.

Sitting and standing repeatedly is also a great way to get simple exercise. This is where a height adjustable desk comes in handy at work! An electric adjustable desk provides the easiest way to change your work position. Move up and down as often as you'd like, standing only as much as your body will tolerate.

To keep up your energy, consider having small meals and snacks spaced evenly throughout the day. If you find that CFS is causing memory issues, use pop-up reminders on your phone or electronic calendar to track tasks and deadlines. You may also be eligible to apply for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) - perhaps a flexible schedule would allow you to work when you have the most energy, or a designated resting spot at work would help you to recharge when needed.

It may take some time and trial-and-error to discover the best way for each individual to cope with chronic fatigue syndrome. Fortunately, with growing awareness of the scope of health conditions, you're likely to encounter the care you need, the advice you seek, or simply a friendly face to help you out along the way.