It is estimated that some 250,000 people in the UK are afflicted with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), and for sufferers, the illness can prove debilitating and often painful. Once described as 'Yuppie flu', CFS can affect people of any age, with symptoms ranging from mild to very severe.
If you are concerned about your own health or that of a loved one, here are the facts about the condition.
What is CFS?
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) or post-viral fatigue syndrome, is a long-term, fluctuating condition that causes the sufferer to experienced prolonged and severe fatigue. Symptoms are varied in both type and severity, but it often affects the nervous and immune systems.
Exactly what causes CFS is still unknown but it is thought there are a number of factors that could increase the risk of developing the condition. These include an inherited genetic susceptibility, mental stress and depression, viral infections such as glandular fever that may weaken the immune system, and traumatic events, either in childhood or more recently.
Who is affected?
Anyone can get CFS but it is more common in women than in men. Though the condition usually develops in the early 20s to mid-40s, children can also be affected, most commonly between the ages of 13 and 15.
The symptoms of CFS vary from person to person and range from the mild to the very severe.
To be diagnosed with the condition, an adult must have been suffering chronic fatigue for at least four months, with no other reason for the exhaustion. Lack of concentration and short-term memory, a sore throat or lymph nodes, muscle and joint pain, and unusual headaches are also pointers.
Other common symptoms include abdominal or chest pain, bloating, diarrhoea, nausea, dizziness and shortness of breath. Some also report feeling depressed, irritable or anxious, and experience a tingling sensation, trouble sleeping and unexplained weight loss.
The symptoms of CFS can last for years but help is available and many sufferers are able to make adjustments that improve their symptoms.
Some patients may be prescribed medication such as painkillers (though over-the-counter medicines are often enough to ease muscle or joint pain and headaches), and antidepressants.
However, once diagnosed, most sufferers will be referred to a programme of treatment involving a variety of therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, which helps to identify and change the way you think, feel and behave, and graded exercise therapy, a structured programme designed to gradually increase how long you can sustain physical activity.
Many sufferers find they benefit from lifestyle advice aimed at controlling the symptoms of CFS, such as pacing, which enables the patient to balance periods of activity with periods of rest, thereby learning to adjust your daily routine so as not to push beyond their physical limits.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome can affect all areas of a sufferer's life and leave them feeling helpless. If you are struggling to cope with the condition or would simply like more information, both the ME Association and the National ME Centre can provide help, support and advice.