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Hope for chronic fatigue syndrome sufferers

If you suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), you already know all too well about symptoms such as headache, exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems, depression, tender lymph nodes and weakness in the muscles and joints. And since there’s no single treatment to tackle your debilitating illness, you may be suffering in silence. But maybe it’s time to take another look: Recent research on CFS could give you new insights and some well-deserved relief.

The clues

The exact cause of this baffling disorder is not known, although doctors have reported seeing such illnesses for more than 100 years. Because they don’t know much about it, some medical professionals are skeptical of it.

Researchers have speculated that what was once labeled the “yuppie flu” (in the early 1980s, mostly well-educated women in their 30s and 40s sought help for it) can be brought on by several different factors. The culprit may be a viral infection (CFS often sets in after a cold, bronchitis or hepatitis), an immune system dysfunction or physical or emotional stress. For instance, it can follow a run-in with infectious mononucleosis, which steals the energy of many teens and young adults. Another theory is that CFS is actually an endpoint of disease resulting from multiple causes that come before it—though those causes are not confirmed. The plot thickens: Sometimes, the disorder seems to develop more gradually, with no clear illness or other event preceding it.

In any case, an estimated 500,000 Americans suffer from CFS. And they are up to four times more likely to be women than men—although experts think this figure could be skewed because women may be more likely than men to talk about their symptoms. Still, the possibility exists that CFS may favor one gender over another, like diseases such as lupus and multiple sclerosis, which strike women more often than men.

You may have CFS if flu-like symptoms (including mild fever and body aches) don’t go away after a few days but persist for a prolonged period or come and go frequently for more than six months. You simply can’t shake strong, noticeable fatigue. Even after a few nights in a row of good sleep, you still feel weak, and your energy and vigor are at an all-time low.

Solving the mystery

Since there’s no quick cure for this disorder, the best approach is to isolate your symptoms and treat them individually. The goal of CFS treatment is to help you resume an active lifestyle—as close to normal for you as possible. Experts recommend several routes to get there:

  • anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, for relieving muscle aches and fever
  • antidepressants
  • antibiotics if you have an infection
  • anti-anxiety drugs (Because CFS tends to make everyday tasks more challenging, it’s not unusual for CFS sufferers to have bouts of anxiety.)
  • nonsedating antihistamines to help relieve any persistent allergic symptoms associated with a patient’s CFS, such as a runny nose
  • exercise therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, which focus on developing mechanisms to cope with the problem (Research has shown that these are valid ways to treat and manage CFS. Family counseling is useful, too; it can show you and your loved ones how to weather the ups and downs that are part of the illness.)

How you eat, exercise and work can also play a big part in relieving your symptoms. (See “Life Changes That Can Help CFS.”)

Some people may recover from CFS within six months to one year, though experts cannot pinpoint what percentage recover completely. Others find that their symptoms improve over time, and they are back to regular activity levels within one or two years. Most CFS sufferers have to undergo a series of different therapies and lifestyle changes.

Seek support

Look for a CFS support group to pull you through the tough times and help keep you on course with a positive attitude. Research is also underway to help doctors better evaluate, diagnose and treat CFS, and experts are working on better educating patients and their families so they can understand—and cope more easily with—this puzzling disorder.

Life changes that can help CFS

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Scientists can’t prove that CFS is caused by any particular nutritional deficiency, but they note that a balanced diet (incorporating all the major food groups) is beneficial in the fight against any chronic illness.
  • Exercise regularly, but don’t progress to a more challenging level. Choose light activities that don’t leave you fatigued; working out too strenuously may make your symptoms worse.
  • Be sure to get enough sleep. Only you know how much makes you feel adequately rested.
  • Avoid potential CFS triggers, such as stress.
  • Talk about it. Counseling can help you and your family cope with bad patches.
  • Pace yourself physically and emotionally at a level comfortable for you. CFS affects different people in different ways. For instance, if you work well in the morning and your energy flags after lunch, try to reserve less challenging tasks for the afternoon.

The clues

Solving the mystery

Seek support

Life changes that can help CFS