Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

What Is It?

Chronic fatigue syndrome is a complicated illness characterized by at least six months of extreme fatigue that is not relieved by rest, and a group of additional symptoms that also are constant for at least six months. In many people with chronic fatigue syndrome, the disorder begins suddenly, often following a flulike infection or an episode of physical or psychological trauma, such as surgery, a traumatic accident or the death of a loved one. In other cases, chronic fatigue syndrome develops gradually. The illness lasts for many months or years, and only a small percentage of people recover full health.

Many people feel tired a lot of the time, and many seek help from their doctors. Most people who experience chronic (long-lasting) fatigue are not suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. Depression and overwork are much more common causes of chronic fatigue.

The exact cause of chronic fatigue syndrome remains a mystery. The illness can follow a number of common infectious illnesses, such as Lyme disease or infectious mononucleosis, but not all cases are tied to infections. Testing has found that people with chronic fatigue syndrome have abnormalities in the brain, particularly in the hypothalamus (a part of the brain that regulates hormones and vital functions) and the pituitary gland. Testing also has found that patients have abnormalities in the part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system, which controls blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature and other vital body functions. For example, many patients with chronic fatigue syndrome have an unusually high heart rate and low blood pressure when they have been standing for a while.

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