Understanding Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

This Guide is designed to help you understand CFS and how it is diagnosed. You'll discover strategies people often use to manage their illness, from energy conservation techniques to acupuncture, chiropractic, massage therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and yoga. The guide also reviews established and experimental medications that are used to treat CFS symptoms. Some of these treatments may work for you; some may not. But don’t lose hope. While you’ll likely have to use a trial-and-error approach to find which strategies help you the most, ultimately your health can improve.

Understanding Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Cover

Boosting Your Energy

Fatigue is a symptom, not a disease, and it’s experienced differently by different people. Fatigue from stress or lack of sleep usually subsides after a good night’s rest, while other fatigue is more persistent and may be debilitating even after restful sleep. Harvard’s Special Health Report Boosting Your Energy provides advice and information from world-renowned medical experts that can help you discover the cause of…

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We all feel run down sometimes. But if you’re persistently tired, no matter how much rest you get, you may be experiencing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Now, in a must-have Online Guide, doctors at Harvard Medical School explain how you can take action to manage your CFS and reclaim the life you love.

Understanding Chronic Fatigue Syndrome starts by answering an important question—what is CFS? You’ll learn the key symptoms of CFS, such as debilitating fatigue that lasts longer than six months, unrefreshing sleep, post-exertion malaise, and cognitive impairment. You’ll also learn who is most likely to have CFS, the average age when CFS symptoms appear, and how CFS is diagnosed. In addition, the guide shares the latest insights on the causes of CFS, from brain abnormalities to inflammation to problems with cellular energy production.

While there is no cure for CFS at the moment, adjusting your lifestyle can help you manage your symptoms. Understanding Chronic Fatigue Syndrome offers a variety of ideas for lifestyle change, including conserving energy, getting outside, and gradually increasing exercise levels. The guide also highlights how nutrition can improve your overall wellness, with a look at supplements that may be beneficial in treating CFS symptoms. What’s more, you get the latest advice for achieving better sleep, which may give your energy levels a boost.

Beyond lifestyle changes, there are treatments available that may relieve your symptoms. Understanding Chronic Fatigue Syndrome gives you an overview of medications that may increase your energy while reducing the joint and muscle pain common among CFS patients. In addition, you’ll read about integrative therapies you can turn to such as massage, chiropractic, acupuncture, yoga, and tai chi. The guide also covers Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), an approach that helps people control the thoughts and behaviors that may trigger CFS symptoms.

It’s easy to get discouraged if you’re facing CFS. But the message of Understanding Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is hopeful. By making a few lifestyle choices and seeking out the treatments that work for you, you can build a life of wellness, vitality, and joy—even with CFS. Now is the time to get started—order Understanding Chronic Fatigue Syndrome today!

About Harvard Medical School Guides

Harvard Medical School Guides delivers compact, practical information on important health concerns. These publications are smaller in scope than our Special Health Reports, but they are written in the same clear, easy-to-understand language, and they provide the authoritative health advice you expect from Harvard Health Publishing.

  • What is chronic fatigue syndrome?
  • Defining CFS
  • What causes CFS?
  • Diagnosing CFS
  • Managing CFS
  • Treating CFS symptoms
  • Seeking wellness despite CFS
  • Resources

How do you know you have CFS?

In 2015, a panel of experts published criteria for diagnosing CFS. The panel was convened by the Institute of Medicine (now known as the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine). The experts concluded that for a person to be diagnosed with CFS, the illness must have caused substantial impairment of normal activities and crushing fatigue that is new in a person’s life. This illness must have lasted at least six months and must be accompanied by several other distinctive symptoms:

• Post-exertional malaise: A “crash” that occurs after you exert yourself physically, mentally, or emotionally, or in response to stress.

• Unrefreshing sleep: Feeling unrested after sleeping many hours, including overnight. People with CFS also report problems with staying asleep, which may explain why they feel unrested on awakening in the morning.

• Cognitive impairments: “Brain fog” and confusion are often described as symptoms of CFS. Problems with attention, memory, and reaction time have been documented. All these symptoms tend to get worse with physical or mental effort, stress, or time pressure. 

• Orthostatic intolerance: Dizziness and lightheadedness that occur or get worse when you sit upright or stand. The symptoms improve, at least in part, if you lie back down or elevate your feet.

Unlike other types of persistent fatigue, which come on gradually, CFS often appears suddenly. For many people, the start of the illness involves symptoms that suggest an infection, such as fever, sore throat, or aching muscles. Many people with CFS continue to have pain and aches in their muscles and joints, headaches, and swollen lymph nodes in the neck and under the arms.

The brains of people with CFS feel any painful stimuli more easily, a condition known as central sensitization. As one person wrote to the Institute of Medicine expert panel, “When I do any activity that goes beyond what I can do—I literally collapse—my body is in major pain. It hurts to lay in bed, it hurts to think, I can’t hardly talk—I can’t find the words. I feel my insides are at war.”
People with CFS also can have
• digestive problems
• impaired ability to regulate body temperature, resulting in chills and night sweats
• allergies or sensitivities to foods, odors, or chemicals
• intolerance of noise and bright light.

The symptoms of CFS tend to wax and wane, and the illness can be unpredictable and variable. But most people remain impaired to some degree, even on their good days. One-quarter of people with CFS are unable to leave their beds for months at a time because of the severe fatigue and other symptoms.

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