Fast facts

  • A person with chronic fatigue syndrome feels overwhelmingly tired and exhausted and needs extended periods of rest, especially after physical, emotional or mental activity.
  • The syndrome is not the same as regular fatigue and exhaustion. It is a real medical condition; people diagnosed with the syndrome are not 'faking' or 'lazy'.
  • The causes of this syndrome are not yet clear.
  • There is no universally successful treatment for the syndrome; treatment focuses on managing the symptoms to improve quality of life.
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome cannot be cured, but symptoms can often be relieved to some extent. The length and course of the illness is difficult to predict and can vary between people.

What is chronic fatigue syndrome?

Chronic fatigue syndrome is an illness characterized by debilitating fatigue. The key feature of chronic fatigue syndrome is a worsening of symptoms after physical, emotional and mental activity, and the need for a long period of recovery. Activities that used to be enjoyable and straightforward start to take a toll on the person's health, causing fatigue that can last for days. There is much variation between people in the level and frequency of activity that they can carry out before symptoms worsen.

The fatigue associated with this condition is not normal fatigue and is not simply cured with rest. 

Chronic fatigue syndrome can affect men, women and children of any age and is estimated to affect an estimated 836,000 to 2.5 million Americans.  


The cause of chronic fatigue syndrome is yet to be fully understood. Factors that may be causing or contributing towards the syndrome include:

Genetic predisposition

The increased likelihood of an individual to develop a medical condition based on their specific genetic profile.


The word ‘stress’ can have a variety of meanings, but generally describes the physical and mental responses of the body to a demand placed upon it. Often used to describe conditions where the demand is high or unable to be resolved and creates anxiety and tension.

Risk factors

Chronic fatigue syndrome is:

  • More frequently diagnosed in women;
  • More frequently diagnosed in young to middle-aged adults, and;
  • Frequently diagnosed alongside fibromyalgia and multiple chemical sensitivities.

Signs and symptoms

Chronic fatigue syndrome does not necessarily follow a predictable course. Symptoms can change in their severity and frequency between people. Symptoms can also vary for one person at different times.

The main symptom is overwhelming weariness that usually follows exertion. The person quickly becomes very tired physically, and can find it difficult to focus or think clearly.

Other symptoms can vary widely between people, but some of the more typical symptoms may include:

  • Anxiety or depression;
  • Joint and muscle aches;
  • Headache, sore throat, and tender lymph nodes;
  • Fevers, night sweats;
  • Difficulty sleeping;
  • Allergies;
  • Upset stomach;
  • Weight loss or weight gain, and;
  • Rapid pulse and chest pain.

People with a mild form of chronic fatigue syndrome can generally continue their regular lives, but they may need to switch to part-time work or study, reduce their recreational activities, and may need occasional assistance.

The moderate form of chronic fatigue syndrome usually makes it too difficult for a person to continue work or study. They may need considerable help with routine tasks. Quality of sleep can also suffer.

The severe forms of chronic fatigue syndrome typically leave people unable to work or study. Some people may need to use a wheelchair for mobility and may find it very hard to leave the house. They are highly dependent on others.

A tired woman due to chronic fatigue.Severe forms of chronic fatigue affect work performance and the carrying out of routine tasks. 


A harmful, hypersensitive immune reaction to usually innocuous environmental substances.


A feeling of tension, nervousness and dread about future events. It can trigger physical symptoms such as a rapid pulse or breathing difficulties.

Methods for diagnosis

There is no single test used to diagnose chronic fatigue syndrome. The diagnosis is made by ruling out other conditions that can cause fatigue, such as:

For a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome, the symptoms need to have been severe enough to significantly impair a person's normal activity level for at least six months (three months in children). The fatigue needs to be:

  • Persistent and unexplained;
  • Not alleviated by rest, and;
  • Not due to ongoing exertion.

Four or more of the following symptoms also need to persist or recur during six or more consecutive months:

  • Unrefreshing sleep;
  • Sore throat;
  • Tender cervical or axillary nodes;
  • Muscle pain;
  • Headaches (new, more frequent, or more severe);
  • Problems with short-term memory or concentration, and;
  • Post-exertion tiredness.

Laboratory tests

Your doctor may also perform blood tests to evaluate your overall health and to look for any underlying conditions or problems, such as inflammation or thyroid disorders.

Epstein-Barr virus

A virus of the herpes family that causes mononucleosis, also known as mono or glandular fever. It is also implicated in some other medical conditions.


A large gland located in the lower front part of the neck that produces hormones that regulate metabolism, growth and development, especially during childhood.


Relating to the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that leads into the vagina.

Lyme disease

An infection caused by Borrelia bacteria that is spread through a tick bite. It may cause a characteristic rash and/or non-specific symptoms that mimic other conditions.

Adrenal insufficiency

A reduction in the amount of chemicals, known as hormones, produced by the adrenal gland. These chemicals are critical for bodily functions, such as controlling blood pressure, metabolism and sexual function. A reduction or lack of these chemicals leads to significant unwellness and even death.

Axillary nodes

A group of lymph nodes located in the armpit region that help fight infections in the chest, armpit, neck and arms.

Types of treatment

There is no universally successful treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome. Treatment focuses on managing symptoms to improve the quality of life. The treatment depends on the individual and their specific symptoms.

There is currently no clear evidence that medication or dietary supplements help treat chronic fatigue syndrome.  

Graded exercise therapy

This involves working with a trained healthcare professional to establish your baseline activity level, and a program to gradually increase the amount of time you can tolerate physical and mental activities. A target heart rate range is set, to avoid over-exertion.

Although exercise may temporarily worsen symptoms, completely ceasing all exercise can make symptoms worse. There is considerable evidence that graded therapy can help improve tiredness and physical functioning.

Cognitive behavior therapy

This 'talking therapy' typically involves a series of sessions designed to identify beliefs and behaviors that may be delaying recovery, to alter negative thinking patterns, and to develop alternative ways of thinking and acting.

This therapy has been shown to offer long-term improvement in fatigue and physical function and can help improve school attendance for teenagers with the condition.  

Complementary therapy

Acupuncture, massage and yoga may help people to relax, increase their energy, and treat muscular aches and pains.


A form of complementary therapy that involves fine sterilized needles being inserted into the skin at specific points to treat medical conditions.

Potential complications

Complications of this syndrome include depression, social isolation, lifestyle restrictions and increased absences from study or work.


Although there is no known cure for chronic fatigue syndrome, the relief of symptoms is possible, to some extent. The length of the illness is difficult to predict and can vary between people. For some, symptoms may last for months or years, while others may have relapses and periods of remission over a matter of years.


There is no known prevention for chronic fatigue syndrome. 


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