Winter can leave many people feeling tired and sluggish, with little daylight and cold weather. Especially following the festive period, a lack of exercise and over-indulgence can lead to lower energy levels. However, some people suffer from persistent tiredness, which doesn’t go away with sleep or rest. This is known as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) or ME (Myalgic Encephalopathy).
Who does it affect?
Around 250,000 people in the UK have chronic fatigue syndrome. It affects women more than men and can appear in people of all ages.
Symptoms of CFS include:
- Tiredness which doesn’t improve with rest
- Painful muscles and joints
- Digestive complaints
- Poor memory and concentration
- Interrupted sleep
- Tender lymph nodes, which are located on the underarms, neck and groin
- Stomach pain
- Stiffness first thing in the morning
- Night sweats
- Weight loss
- Alcohol intolerance
- Psychological problems, such as depression, irritability, anxiety, panic attacks
The severity of the syndrome tends to vary among sufferers. Some people have relatively mild symptoms, and the effect upon their lives is quite minimal. In its worst form, however, CFS is debilitating, and the impact upon patients’ lives is enormous. Some CFS sufferers cannot attend school or work and are housebound for months and years.
What causes CFS?
There is no known cause of CFS. However, it sometimes develops after a viral infection, or is triggered by pregnancy, an accident, a major life event such as a divorce, or a bereavement. In other cases its onset is gradual. It is also thought that CFS may be partially genetic.
How can CFS be treated?
There is no known cure for CFS, but there are a number of treatments which can alleviate symptoms. Prescriptions vary among patients: what works for one CFS sufferer may not work for another. It’s often the case that small alterations to your lifestyle can go a long way in helping to lessen the severity of the symptoms.
- An early diagnosis often helps. If you are concerned that you may have CFS, visit your GP for advice.
- CFS sufferers often experience periods in which symptoms worsen; getting plenty of rest during and after these episodes can often help.
- Graded exercise therapy is sometimes offered to CFS sufferers and aims to develop a patient’s strength and durability. Patients work in a one-to-one context with a specialist, who sets small goals based on ability, such as walking to the end of the road or going to the shop.
- A treatment programme might also include activity management, which helps patients learn how to utilise their limited time effectively, setting small goals and prioritising tasks.
- Some CFS sufferers find cognitive behavioural therapy helpful. This therapy targets thoughts, feelings and behaviour, changing how patients react to situations. It can help sufferers come to terms with their diagnosis and deal with their illness on an emotional level.
- Medication is also sometimes prescribed – for example, antidepressants and over-the-counter painkillers which can help with joint and muscle pain. However, medication is only one treatment option and is often combined with other therapies.
Sufferers can also try the following self-help methods to try and alleviate their symptoms:
- Pacing – know your own physical and emotional boundaries and don’t push yourself beyond these boundaries.
- Avoid stressful situations. Keep a diary and plan ahead so that you aren’t overwhelmed at the last minute. If you are travelling, meticulously plan your journey to avoid any uncertain moments.
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, sugar and sweeteners, which can induce dramatic highs and lows which may aggravate your condition. Eating small regular meals will also help to avoid sugar crashes, which will leave you feeling sluggish.
- Spend time relaxing. Rest is extremely important for sufferers of CFS.