Explainer: What is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?


Chronic fatigue syndrome, or myalgic encephalomyelitis, is a highly debilitating, but often misunderstood, disorder.

As its name suggests, the illness is characterised by profound fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and impaired memory and concentration. Sufferers also experience impaired cardiovascular function, gut disorders, and sensory dysfunction, such as noise intolerance and problems with balance.

The symptoms tend to be so deliberating and severe that chronic fatigue patients often experience family and social breakdown and isolation. Many cases can continue for months or years, and often symptoms don’t improve with rest.

Chronic fatigue syndrome was trivialised for years due to the lack of scientific evidence supporting its diagnosis, and dismissed as the “yuppie flu”. Sufferers continue to endure the stigma of a condition that is often poorly recognised by the medical community and treated with scepticism by family, friends, and co-workers.

All this despite the fact that chronic fatigue is thought to have a global prevalence rate of 0.2 to 2.6% . A conservative estimate puts the number of people in Australia with chronic fatigue disorder at 180,000.

Chronic fatigue predominantly affects young adults between the ages of 20 and 40 years. The female-to-male diagnosis ratio is six-to-one but why the disorder is more prevalent in women than men is unknown.

Managing chronic fatigue syndrome can be as complex as the illness itself. There is no cure and no prescription drugs have been developed specifically for chronic fatigue syndrome, making it very difficult to treat. Symptoms can also vary over time.

People with chronic fatigue syndrome should closely monitor their health in conjunction with their doctor to create an individualised treatment program that best meets their needs. This program should be based on a combination of therapies that address symptoms, coping techniques and ways to manage normal daily activities.

It’s crucial that we discover a biological basis for chronic fatigue so we can start working out ways to better treat the condition.

Diagnosis is a lengthy and expensive process, as a host of other diseases that share symptoms have to be excluded. Given that diagnosis is notoriously difficult, finding unique markers of the illness has been a focus of research for over 20 years.

Researchers have observed significant differences between the immune cells of chronic fatigue sufferers and healthy people. This discovery could potentially lead to the identification of chronic fatigue biomarkers (examinable biological indicators that can be used for diagnosis).

This, in turn, could lead to the development of tests that detect chronic fatigue rather than having to rely on reported symptoms.

Other researchers have identified a strong association between chronic fatigue syndrome and a deregulated (or ill-functioning) immune system, which might point to the underlying mechanism of the disorder.

In sufferers of chronic fatigue, the researchers observed that the function of “natural killer cells” — immune cells that have the ability to kill off infected cells in the body – was reduced. This means they’re unable to remove pathogens effectively and efficiently.

And Australian researchers have discovered changes in a number of other immune cells that are required to fight viruses in people with chronic fatigue.

In particular, they’ve have identified specific changes to the gene that controls these cells, and the receptors that activate them. This suggests there is a possible explanation as to why these cells are able not functioning effectively and efficiently.

Collectively, these results provide the first steps towards a system for the early diagnosis of chronic fatigue. They may also provide evidence that these changes in immune function are involved in the cause of the disorder.

But while the findings have the potential to bring relief to many chronic fatigue sufferers, research is still in its preliminary stages. At this juncture, researchers are testing these potential biomarkers against a number of other diseases to ensure they’re unique to chronic fatigue syndrome patients.

With a better understanding of the biological causes of chronic fatigue, we can not only tackle the symptoms of chronic fatigue, but the stigma as well.

Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik receives funding from Mason Foundation, Edward P Evans Foundation and the Queensland Government -Smart State Initiatives.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

*Image of sleeping man via Shutterstock.



  • Major Bumtickle

    Explainer? After all that babble I still don’t know what it is.

    • TapestryMood

      The first two paragraphs gave a synopsis

      • Major Bumtickle

        Sorry. I should have been more specific. I understand the symptoms described in the first two paragraphs, but I don’t understand what the disorder actually is, and this article titled, “Explainer: What is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?”, didn’t help me.

        • TapestryMood

          OK..I understand, now;-).
          I think it is just what was stated…symptoms given …and research provided for new clues/finding markers …and the search goes on.

          • Major Bumtickle

            I shouldn’t have been so edgy with my comments, but I have a relative that suffers from this disorder and there’s no one on her side. It’s very frustrating. I hope that you can understand.

          • TapestryMood

            Yes. I can..if you saw my stand-alone post, I have 2 friends diagnosed with it…so heartbreaking and so many people really don’t believe it is a real disorder…just like those with fiibromyalgia for years being accused of faking the intensity/debilitation of pain, etc.. before it finally got to be an official disorder..
            I am so sorry for your relative…I am glad she has you!!
            Peace..Taps

          • Major Bumtickle

            xoxox :-)

  • TapestryMood

    I have known two people diagnosed with it.
    It is beyond terrible for them and their families. Glad to see some progress is being made in possible causes.

  • eyelashviper

    Many years ago, I was diagnosed with CFS, after being ignored by several doctors, and treated rather badly by them. The fatigue was so tremendous, that I had to sleep 18 hours a day, and any over exertion sent me into a near comatose state. I recall being so tired that even opening my eyes to look at the clock was more than I could bear. During that time I read about the author of Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand, who also suffered from this debilitating disease. She wrote on a laptop, in bed, and kept her eyes closed to conserve energy.
    It is impossible to really describe the kind of exhaustion and fatigue that accompanies this disease, and it takes years to recover.
    Several docs, who took my symptoms seriously, and after ruling out Lyme Disease, helped me to find alternative healing methods, including nutrition, which has been a life saver for me.
    Just hope that more information will be available to all who are beset with this awful condition.

    • TapestryMood

      Thank you for sharing…my two friends went through same as you with doctors..as do so many with fibromyalgia, I believe.;-(
      Nutrition has been of benefit to them also…anti-inflammatory foods, etc. One is also using Reiki services and loves it..I recommended it after it helped my mom in her final months with cancer, as I did hospice with her and it was on the hospice list of services in my state. She was not taking any cancer treatments, as it had spread everywhere and just wanted palliative care. It was so wonderful to see her so relaxed and pain free after Reiki treatments.
      My best wishes for you…Taps


Top