ME Awareness Week

Caroline Cassidy

ME affects some 250,000 people in the UK and it can prove a debilitating and often painful illness. From 6-12 May 2012, Action for ME, the UK's leading charity for sufferers of the condition, are organising fundraising events as part of ME Awareness Week.

ME Awareness Week
ME Awareness Week

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Established in 1987, the charity aims to raise awareness of the condition, raise money for research and campaigns for better treatment.

So what is ME and what are the symptoms, causes and treatments available? Here's what you need to know.

What is ME?
Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), is a long-term, fluctuating illness that results in a variety of symptoms. It often affects the nervous and immune systems.

Who is affected?
Anyone can get ME 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 ME vary from person to person and range from the mild to the very severe.

The main symptom is severe fatigue (hence the name Chronic Fatigue Syndrome preferred by the NHS). A feeling of exhaustion following both mental and physical activity is not alleviated by sleep or rest and can therefore have serious consequences for the sufferer.

Other common symptoms include muscular or joint pain, severe headaches, stomach pain and a sore throat. Trouble sleeping, concentrating and difficulty organising your thoughts may also be a symptom, while in more severe cases, some sensitivity to bright light or loud noises is experienced. Less common symptoms include dizziness, sweating and problems with balance.

Though fatigue is usually the main symptom, most sufferers experience one or more other symptoms that are unexplained by other conditions, and are persistent or recurrent.

Exactly what causes ME 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.

The symptoms of ME 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 ME, 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.

ME 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 like to help raise awareness, visit