Understanding myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a debilitating medical condition characterized by extreme fatigue that is not alleviated by bed rest, and which can worsen with physical or mental activity.

Symptoms of CFS can include exhaustion, weakness, muscle or joint pain, insomnia, unrefreshed sleep, tiredness or discomfort lasting more than 24 hours caused by physical activity, problems with the functioning of the brain (e.g., confusion or short-term memory loss), and problems with the immune system (e.recurrent flu-like symptoms, easily catching viral infections with long recovery periods), among others. Chronic fatigue can last for years.

We usually connect the word "fatigue" with everyday tiredness, such as we may get from a gruelling work week, finishing a triathlon, or getting through a stressful occasion. These may suggest that the fatigue is short-term and will be remedied by some good rest and sleep.

But how does one adequately put into words the level of tiredness where a person with CFS experiences ongoing physical incapacity for roughly 50% of the time? Some people with CFS even wind up housebound or bedridden, feeling more incapacitated than those undergoing chemotherapy or those with HIV/AIDS (excluding those at the terminal stage).

Clearly this isn't the type of problem that can be remedied just by putting your feet up for the evening, or securing a night or three of good sleep. The problem is that using the word "fatigue" doesn't fully express the possible range of exhaustion that a person with CFS faces or the severity of the condition.


A name less recognized in Canada but moving into more common use is myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME). This lengthy name can be easily broken down into its parts, where "myalgic" refers to muscle pain; "encephalo" refers to the brain; "myel" refers to the spinal cord; and "itis" refers to inflammation.

In 2001, Health Canada appointed an international panel of experts in this emerging field of medicine to establish a clinical working-case definition, diagnostic guidelines, and treatment procedures. The panel released a set of guidelines in 2003 and their choice of name to describe the condition was both "myalgic encephalomyelitis" and "chronic fatigue syndrome" – with acronyms shortening it down to a manageable size: ME/CFS.

How common is this condition? It is estimated that more than 1 million people in the US population have ME/CFS – 422 per every 100,000 people. It is 4 times as common in women as in men (522 out of 100,000 women have it), and women suffer from ME/CFS in greater numbers than from breast cancer (26 per 100,000), HIV/AIDS (12 per 100,000), or lung cancer (33 per 100,000).

Some areas may have higher numbers. In 2007, a US study found the occurrence of ME/CFS to be as high as 2.5% of the population in Georgia.

Here in Canada, Statistics Canada reported in 2005 that over 341,000 Canadians were diagnosed with ME/CFS. While the growing numbers have lead to increased public awareness, the hunt is still on for definitive causes, prevention, and a cure.

All material copyright MediResource Inc. 1996 – 2018. Terms and conditions of use. The contents herein are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Source: www.medbroadcast.com/healthfeature/gethealthfeature/Living-with-Myalgic-EncephalomyelitisChronic-Fatigue-Syndrome