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Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)

by Psychologytherapy
Chronic fatigue syndrome

What is chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)?

Chronic fatigue syndrome is a long-term illness characterised by intense exhaustion and tiredness that doesn’t improve after resting or sleeping and that is worsened with physical or mental activity.

As the NHS explains, chronic fatigue syndrome is also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), and therefore, many people refer to the condition as CFS/ME.

The World Health Organization indicates that this condition is included in the list of disorders that affect the central nervous system, and it is frequent, especially in adult women. In any case, this is a condition that is detected more and more often.

Even though they are different conditions, it is common to mistake chronic fatigue with major depressive disorder, as both can have similar symptoms.


The causes of chronic fatigue syndrome are unknown. Some conditions can be a risk factor for chronic fatigue:

  • Epstein-Barr virus: it is also known as human herpesvirus 4 and can impact chronic fatigue, but it is unknown if any virus can be the direct cause.
  • Inflammation of the nervous system: caused by a problem with the immune system response.

In addition to this, other risk factors can be age, having a previous disease, stress, genes or environmental factors.


The main symptom of chronic fatigue syndrome is intense fatigue and tiredness that can reduce the person’s activity and energy. Other symptoms can include:

  • Increase of exhaustion after doing activities that require physical or mental effort.
  • Sleeping problems.
  • Attention or memory difficulties.
  • Prolonged muscles and articulation pain.
  • Frequent headaches.
  • Fast or irregular heartbeats.
  • Sore throat or sore glands.
  • Swollen glands in neck and armpits.

All these symptoms are common to all patients and are helpful to diagnose chronic fatigue. In addition to those, other symptoms can be present in certain people:

  • Difficulties when thinking.
  • Problems standing, dizziness, balance issues, or fainting.
  • Increased sensitivity to smells, a particular food, or chemicals.
  • Irritable bowel.
  • Shivering.
  • Night sweats.

People with chronic fatigue syndrome function with reduced activity levels, which can lead to other problems such as not functioning well at work or neglecting social relationships. In some cases, this condition can trigger depression or other mental health issues, like irritability, anxiety, panic attacks, or mood changes. The intensity of these symptoms can change from day to day or even during the same day.

The NHS warns that the symptoms of CFS/ME are similar to the symptoms of some other illnesses. Because of this, they highlight the importance to get a correct diagnosis.


Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

The treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome includes Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This type of therapy helps the patient accept the condition and their symptoms, understand better how the illness works, gain more control over it, modify the unhelpful thoughts that can have a negative impact, and face the disorder with a more realistic and helpful mindset.

Graded exercise therapy (GET)

Graded exercise therapy is a structured program that aims to control and increase progressively the intensity of the activity carried out by people with chronic fatigue syndrome, always adapted to the person’s physical capabilities.

This type of treatment usually involves aerobic exercise. The purpose is to find out the length and intensity of activity that the person is comfortable with and increase it gradually.


There is no specific pharmacological treatment to treat chronic fatigue. For this reason, medication can be used to reduce the symptoms of the condition. If the provider considers it necessary, it can prescribe medication for anxietydepression, or tablets to ease the pain or fever if that is the case.

Lifestyle changes

Other ways to tackle the problem are having a healthy diet, including fruit and vegetables and eating enough and varied food, sleeping enough hours, and using relaxation techniques, such as mindfulness. It is also positive to have an active social life and exercise regularly without intense efforts.

Some patients find it helpful to attend support groups to share their experiences and meet other people suffering from the same difficulties.

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