Everyone has had a night of sleep that does nothing to cure the general feeling of tiredness. Whether it is from stress, anxiety, or pain, the next day is always a challenge to bear. As fatigue sets in the day after a sleepless night, we all become irritable, weak, and lack energy to get through the day. Now imagine that happens almost every day no matter what you try to get some rest. That is a commonplace event for those who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and it is just the tip of the iceberg. Lately, research has made some major breakthroughs with this condition, from identifying effective treatments to making headway on what actually causes this disorder.

What you need to know about chronic fatigue syndrome

Chronic fatigue syndrome, or its medical name myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), is a disorder characterized by extreme fatigue that affects about 2.5 million people in the U.S. Unfortunately, there is no single test to identify chronic fatigue syndrome. It is a condition that can only be diagnosed through the elimination of other diseases first.

Chronic fatigue syndrome has many symptoms besides fatigue that help identify it, including:

  • Feeling extremely exhausted more than 24 hours after physical or mental exercise
  • Unrefreshing sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating and memory loss
  • Enlarged lymph nodes in neck or armpits
  • Muscle pain and aches
  • Pain that moves from one joint to another without swelling or redness
  • Headache of a new type, pattern, or strength

While research is still ongoing, the exact cause of CFS is still unknown. However, there are known risk factors for this condition, such as it commonly affects those in their 40s and 50s and it is much more likely to be found in women than men. This disease can present in different ways such as constantly causing fatigue or appearing intermittently, so treatment is often difficult as it is unique to each individual who experiences it.

The science on chronic fatigue syndrome

Chronic fatigue syndrome can be severe and quite taxing. There is some new, exciting research, however, that could change how we understand this mysterious disorder.

1. Therapy for chronic fatigue syndrome

A team from Oxford University have found two treatments that provide long-term benefits for those who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome. Specifically, this new study showed that cognitive behavioral (CBT) therapy and graded exercise therapy (GET) produced better outcomes than standard medical care or adaptive pacing therapy after the first year. Additionally, those who participated in CBT and GET also maintained their progress over 2 years and were less likely to have sought other therapy options. Out of all of the participants in these therapies, it was found that none were any more likely to have their chronic fatigue worsen as a result of these treatments.

2. Immune changes in chronic fatigue syndrome

The Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University discovered unique immune changes in those who have chronic fatigue syndrome. This research has found that CFS has two distinct phases. The first three years of having this disorder shows an increase in different types of immune molecules called cytokines. After this three-year period, the immune system can no longer keep up and cytokine levels drop. This is the first identifiable physical evidence that CFS is a biological illness rather than a psychological one and that it has multiple phases.

Mady Hornig, MD, director of translational research at the Center for Infection and Immunity and lead author states:

“We now have evidence confirming what millions of people with this disease already know, that ME/CFS isn’t psychological. Our results should accelerate the process of establishing the diagnosis after individuals first fall ill as well as discovery of new treatment strategies focusing on these early blood markers.”

3. New diagnostic criteria and naming for CFS

A recent Institute of Medicine (IOM) report has enlisted the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to take action in regards to growing concerns about CFS. The IOM report calls for new diagnostic criteria as well as a new name for this disease – systemic exertion intolerance disease.

In response to this report, the NIH has reevaluated their current approach and decided to increase funding as well as design a clinical study in partnership with various other national institutes. The primary objective of the new clinical study is to explore characteristics of CFS to better understand how the disease progresses and what causes it.

Francis S. Collinm MD, Ph.D, and director of NIH said that:

“Of the many mysterious human illnesses that science has yet to unravel, ME/CFS has proven to be one of the most challenging. I am hopeful that renewed research focus will lead us toward identifying the cause of this perplexing and debilitating disease so that new prevention and treatment strategies can be developed.”

4. A new look at the brain of chronic fatigue syndrome patients

A new study done by the University of Florida Health shows that the neural pathways, which communicate fatigue to the brain, might be overly sensitive in those who suffer from CFS. This study also indicates for the first time that muscles contribute to feelings of fatigue as the neural pathways respond to the lactic acid that is produced by working a muscle. After exercising, the body transmits information through these pathways to the brain indicating fatigue. In those with CFS, these same pathways are so sensitive that they can trigger greatly exaggerated feeling of fatigue instead.

Chronic fatigue syndrome is a serious issue that can be paralyzing. Do you or someone you know suffer from this condition? What treatments do you use that help the most?

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