The term chronic fatigue is often misunderstood because there is no definitive test because of the wide range of symptoms. The simplest way to define chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is as a condition characterised by severe fatigue lasting for more than six months where there is no other medical reason to explain that fatigue.
Aside from the debilitating effect of having chronic fatigue, the symptoms can be intensified by the feeling that those close to us believe we are either exaggerating the symptoms or that the symptoms don’t exist at all. It’s important for people with CFS to know that those closest to them believe their illness is real. That is how to help someone with chronic fatigue syndrome, especially in the early stages of their diagnosis. It is not uncommon for people with CFS to fall into depression when they feel as though they’re not supported.
It’s important to be a good listener. If someone with CFS is discussing their illness with you and their concerns seem to be repetitive to hear perhaps you can stop and think how challenging and repetitive the fatigue and pain associated with CFS would be. People with CFS often comment on their unwillingness to share their concerns and discomfort for fear that people are sick of hearing about their illness.
The same applies to asking for help. People with CFS are not great at asking for help, especially if they believe that the people closest to them are skeptical about the veracity of their illness. General offers of assistance are less likely to be accepted than very specific ones. For example, suggesting that the person with CFS to ring if they need anything is less likely to be accepted than an offer to come and make dinner or to do some ironing or vacuuming.
Learning about CFS is really important to somebody who has CFS. It’s unlikely that you could ever truly understand the pain and fatigue associated with CFS unless you have it, but you can make an effort to understand. If you read or research CFS, share what you have read with the person you know and ask them if the symptoms or information applies to them. It’s a great way to get a conversation going and it will go a long way to making the person with CFS feel that somebody understands.
There is no chronic fatigue syndrome cure as such but lifestyle modifications, nutritional supplements, dietary advice and medications are well recognised as effective treatments.
CFS is associated with fibromyalgia which is a chronic condition with symptoms that include pain and stiffness that primarily affect the muscles of the neck and shoulders.
Other fibromyalgia symptoms include disturbed sleep, depression, headaches, nerve pain and allergies.
Dr Peter Dobie is a GP with a particular interest in CFS and fibromyalgia.