There is a syndrome that has been controversial for the past few decades called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), and up until recently, many doctors believed this problem was psychological and not really a physical disease.
The syndrome is much more common in women, and most sufferers are in their 40s or 50s. The main symptom is extreme fatigue that can’t be explained by any other problem, such as low thyroid function. Medical experts diagnose Chronic Fatigue Syndrome only after a minimum of 6 months of fatigue, that is typically both physical and mental. Often the tiredness is not improved by sleep.
Other symptoms include a chronic mental “fogginess”, and some CFS patients can’t tolerate standing up for very long. CFS patients may also have several of these other symptoms: sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, unexplained muscle or joint pain that may move from joint to joint, and chronic headaches. The joint pains, when present, are not accompanied by swelling or redness.
Here is the story of one typical sufferer, Donna Flowers of California, who developed CFS after an episode of mononucleosis: “I slept for 12 to 14 hours a day but still felt sleep-deprived. I had what we call ‘brain fog’. I couldn’t think straight, and I could barely read. I couldn’t get the energy to go out of the door. I thought I was doomed. I wanted to die.”
The cause is unknown, but many patients report a recent viral infection that appears to have triggered the problem. Other theories include some environmental or toxic exposure, and many experts believe several factors working together, including underlying stress, may cause CFS.
Since the symptoms of CFS are often variable and can be confused with underlying chronic depression, a doctor needs to do a physical exam and a battery of blood tests including hormonal levels, to make sure there is no other cause for the symptoms. Unfortunately, there is no blood test that will diagnose CFS.
As noted, many doctors until recently have thought CFS just to be a manifestation of chronic stress, but most now believe that CFS dis indeed a true disease, with physical causes. Studies last year from California and Japan noted, on special MRI scans, changes in the brains of CFS sufferers. Inflammation in the brain and spinal cord may occur, so some experts believe CFS is a form of encephalomyelitis.
No one seems to be happy with the current name of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and the Institute of Medicine of the United States recently recommended a new name, “systemic exertion intolerance disease”. This is still in discussion, but it seems like CFS will have a new name soon.
Whatever the final name, CFS frustrates both the patients and the doctors who don’t have any specific treatment except for medications, such as anti-inflammatories, anti-depressants, and sometimes sleeping pills. Keeping as active as possible seems to help, along with physical therapy and psychological counseling.
While there is no current cure, there is a tremendous amount of research directed toward finding the cause and better—more specific—treatments for the problem. We will keep you informed here as more news appears.
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