Feeling exhausted all the time no matter how much you rest? Dealing with debilitating muscle pain and weakness? If so, you may have muscle fatigue syndrome, also called myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) or simply chronic fatigue syndrome. This complex disorder causes severe fatigue lasting at least six months along with other troubling symptoms that severely reduce quality of life.
Getting an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment for ME/CFS can be very challenging, but is essential to reclaiming your health. To help you get started, let’s examine the symptoms, diagnosis process, possible causes, and range of treatments for muscle fatigue syndrome so you can take charge of your illness.
Here are practical tips for coping with fatigue, along with medications, tailored exercise programs, smart lifestyle adaptations, and therapies that may help.
Muscle fatigue syndrome, or systemic exertion intolerance disease (SEID) as it is sometimes called, is a serious chronic illness characterised by extreme physical and mental exhaustion, widespread muscle aches and pain, cognitive dysfunction, unrefreshing sleep, and post-exertional malaise where symptoms worsen after any physical, mental or emotional exertion.
It is a complex, difficult-to-treat condition without a known cause or definitive cure. ME/CFS millions of people around the world, the majority being women. The disease causes substantial long-term disability and loss of productivity.
The primary symptom is profound fatigue lasting six months or longer that is not improved by rest. The fatigue is physical and pathological in nature, not merely psychological burnout. Patients experience “crashes’ ‘ where symptoms flare up for days, weeks or even months after over-exerting themselves physically, cognitively, or emotionally. Even minor activities may trigger crashes. The disease affects multiple body systems.
Along with extreme fatigue, additional common symptoms include:
- Widespread muscle pain
- Tender lymph nodes
- Sore throat
- Persistent headaches
- Flu-like achiness
- Impaired memory
- Difficulty concentrating
- Slowed thinking
- Insomnia or sleeping excessively
- Physical weakness and heavy limbs
- Digestive issues like nausea, loss of appetite, irritable bowel
- Sensitivity to noise or light
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
Symptom severity varies between patients and can fluctuate within the same person day to day. Some people are severely disabled and bedridden, while others manage to work part-time with significant lifestyle adaptations. Social isolation is common since activities with friends can quickly deplete limited energy reserves.
Yes, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), is a very real medical condition. While it is often misunderstood, it is a serious issue. Here is what you should know about it:
- CFS is a complex, serious disease characterised by extreme fatigue, widespread muscle and joint pain, cognitive dysfunction, and other symptoms that get worse with physical or mental exertion.
- It is recognized as a diagnosable medical condition by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the World Health Organization (WHO).
- Multiple studies have revealed clear immunological, neurological, and cognitive abnormalities in CFS patients compared to healthy individuals. This helps confirm it is a physiological disease, not a psychological one.
- Research increasingly links CFS to a variety of possible underlying causes and triggers including viral infections, immune system dysfunction, inflammation, cellular metabolism deficits, and brain abnormalities.
- CFS often causes severe disability and prevents patients from being able to work or conduct normal daily activities. 25% of patients are homebound or bedridden.
- The lack of a definitive cause and limited treatment options have contributed to CFS being stigmatised and dismissed in the past, but research is now validating it as a real disease.
- Researchers from DePaul University in Chicago found that approximately 0.89% of people of the global population have CFS. meaning approximately 65 million people worldwide
While some sceptics still question CFS based on the lack of a proven cause or diagnostic test, ongoing research confirms it is a very real disease that causes long-term suffering and disability for millions of people worldwide. Developing more effective treatments remains a top priority.
Since there are currently no laboratory or imaging tests that can diagnose ME/CFS, it is primarily identified based on clinical evaluation of symptoms and ruling out other possible conditions. Doctors look for three core diagnostic criteria:
- Severe chronic fatigue not explained by other illnesses lasting over 6 months and not relieved by resting
- Post-exertional malaise that provokes worsening of symptoms after minimal physical or mental activity.
- Unrefreshing sleep, cognitive impairment, muscle pain and orthostatic intolerance.
Your healthcare professional will conduct a thorough medical history, physical examination, lab tests and questioning about activities and lifestyle to help determine if symptoms truly fit ME/CFS or if another illness might explain them. Since some conditions like thyroid disorders, Lyme disease, lupus, depression and sleep apnea have overlapping symptoms, these must be ruled out first via testing before diagnosing ME/CFS.
There is some overlap between fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), but they are considered distinct conditions with important differences:
- Fibromyalgia: The main symptom is widespread muscle pain and tenderness. Extreme fatigue is sometimes present but not the defining feature.
- CFS: The primary symptom is extreme and persistent fatigue that is not relieved by rest. Muscle pain may be present but is secondary.
- Fibromyalgia: Pain is the main complaint – widespread aching and tenderness throughout the body. Muscles, joints, and soft tissues are sensitive.
- CFS: Muscle aches are common but not necessarily the predominant complaint. Joint pain is less common. Pain severity varies.
- Fibromyalgia: Moderate to severe fatigue occurs in many patients but is not the defining characteristic.
- CFS: Overwhelming physical and mental exhaustion is the hallmark. Debilitating fatigue impairs functioning.
- Fibromyalgia: Most patients are able to carry out activities and work with some pacing and lifestyle changes.
- CFS: Many suffer from substantial disability and inability to work. 25% or more are housebound or bedridden.
- Fibromyalgia: Non-restorative sleep is common but not present in all. Insomnia is more prevalent.
- CFS: Unrefreshing sleep and altered sleep patterns occur in most patients.
- Fibromyalgia: Symptoms may worsen after activity, but intense flares are uncommon. Can usually repeat mild activities.
- CFS: The worsening of symptoms after activity is a defining feature. Even minimal exertion can trigger a relapse.
In summary, while fibromyalgia and CFS both involve pain and fatigue, the severity and predominance of core symptoms differ significantly between the two conditions.
The exact causes of ME/CFS remain unknown, though research points to multiple interacting factors:
- Viral infections
- Immune system dysfunction
- Autonomic nervous system issues
- Endocrine problems
- Mitochondrial defects and cellular metabolism abnormalities
- Brain inflammation, structural and connectivity changes
- Genetic predisposition
- High mental and physical stress may act as triggering factors
- Gender (more common in women than men)
- Age (most frequently occurs between ages 40 to 60 years)
For reasons not fully understood, it appears that common viruses, high stress, and genetic factors interact to trigger ME/CFS in certain individuals. Research to pinpoint definitive causes and risk factors continues.
Since there is no known cure for ME/CFS, treatment aims to relieve symptoms, improve functioning, and help patients better manage their limited energy levels. A personalised treatment plan tailored to the individual can significantly improve your quality of life. Options include:
- Medications – Over-the-counter analgesics, prescription antidepressants, sedatives for sleep, stimulants for alertness and fatigue
- Pacing – Balancing periods of activity and rest to avoid post-exertional crashes.
- Cognitive behavioural therapy – Addressing thoughts/attitudes about having a disability
- Stress management – Relaxation techniques, counselling, massage, meditation, yoga.
- Dietary changes – Eliminating sensitivities, and immune-supporting nutrition
- Nutritional supplements – CoQ10, vitamin D, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids
- Alternative medicine – Acupuncture and herbal remedies
- Comorbidities – Treating co-occurring conditions like depression, pain, IBS.
- Graded exercise tailored to individual limits combined with pacing activities and adequate rest are key to preventing post-exertional crashes.
- Physical and occupational therapy can help maintain strength and mobility. Reducing stress and finding an optimal nutrition plan also optimise energy.
You can also consider some of these light exercises to improve overall health as well as mood:
The extreme fatigue and limited energy of ME/CFS can feel overwhelming. Here are some tips for coping:
- Listen to your body and rest when needed.
- Prioritise and pace activities over the day.
- Set realistic goals for what is achievable each day.
- Reduce stress through relaxation, meditation, and massage.
- Maintain a healthy diet and stay hydrated.
- Join a support group to share advice and experiences.
- Communicate your needs clearly with family, friends, and coworkers.
- Remain mentally active and engaged in hobbies when possible.
- Avoid overexerting yourself to prevent crashes.
- Focus on progress in recovery, not expectations of normal energy levels.
- Allow yourself to feel positive emotions from small daily accomplishments.
Though ME/CFS can seem frustrating and bleak, self-care tailored to your individual needs along with support and validation from loved ones helps in constructively coping with the illness. Celebrate small daily victories, adapt activities or break them into smaller steps, and focus on your remaining capabilities, not limitations.
While ME/CFS currently has no known cure, patients can regain functioning and work towards recovery with diligent self-care and medical support. Some important factors include:
- Finding a doctor knowledgeable about ME/CFS.
- Experimenting to find treatments that help your symptoms.
- Beginning very gradual exercise programs within limits.
- Pacing activities to avoid overexertion and crashes.
- Reducing and managing stress.
- Having a strong support system.
- Getting quality sleep and allowing yourself to rest.
- Exploring alternative therapies and supplements.
- Participating in ME/CFS research studies.
- Tracking your progress to determine effective treatments.
Though the road to recovery is long, staying positive and listening to your body’s limitations can put you on the path towards improved health and functioning. As researchers continue studying ME/CFS, better treatment options will hopefully be found. But for now, diligent self-care provides the best means of regaining your capabilities and purpose.
While ME/CFS presents substantial challenges, knowledge and self-care skills empower you to take control of your health as much as possible. Learning your personal boundaries for activity and rest, developing effective coping mechanisms, working with compassionate medical providers, and listening to your body give you tools to start overcoming the illness. With an individualised treatment plan, adequate rest and support, recovery is achievable.
Don’t give up hope. Working with a healthcare professional who truly understands you and your condition can be life-changing. Why wait another day? We also offer treatment for knee pain as well as PRP treatment at our orthopaedic clinic here in Singapore.
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About the Author
Dr James Tan is a highly skilled orthopaedic surgeon who has more than 10 years of experience in sports surgery and exercise medicine. He is a member of the elite Asian Shoulder and Elbow Group and a founding member of the Singapore Shoulder and Elbow Surgery Society.
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