Everyone gets tired sometimes. Long workdays, heavy workloads at school, or stressful seasons of life can exhaust anyone. What does it mean when that exhaustion never seems to end, though?
For people struggling with chronic fatigue syndrome, that can be what everyday life feels like. It is sometimes described as a deep sense of mental and physical exhaustion with no relief in sight. Unfortunately, the condition is still not well understood.
Chronic fatigue syndrome is four times more likely to impact women and people born female. It is also much more likely to affect middle-aged people. However, it can and does affect many people outside of these demographics – and can be difficult to diagnose and deal with.
Learning more about the condition and possible symptoms can help you have an informed conversation with your doctor.
What is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
Chronic fatigue syndrome is a medical disorder characterized by exhaustion and lethargy. Typically, this condition is diagnosed after other underlying medical issues have been ruled out.
You may see chronic fatigue syndrome abbreviated as CFS. You may also see it referred to by a newer name, myalgic encephalomyelitis. This may be abbreviated as ME. Often, the terms are used in conjunction with one another, with the resulting abbreviation being CFS/ME.
While that might sound a little bit confusing, the condition itself is even more so. Unfortunately, there is no known cause of CFS/ME, nor is there a cure. There are treatment options, but these are only aimed at addressing symptoms.
As research continues, there is hope within the chronic illness and disability community that CFS/ME will one day be cured – or at least more treatable than it currently is.
An Unsatisfiable Need for Sleep
According to the Mayo Clinic, one of the primary hallmarks of CFS/ME is that the tiredness it causes cannot be satisfied. No matter how much sleep or rest you get, your body and mind will never feel adequately rested with CFS.
It is like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in the bottom.
Additionally, physical or mental exertion makes this feeling of exhaustion worse. This means that people with chronic fatigue syndrome often feel entirely unable to function by the end of the day.
Unfortunately, though, sleep will never deliver the relief from this feeling that it does for someone without CFS/ME.
For many people, tiredness is the only symptom of chronic fatigue syndrome that they are aware of. However, there are many additional symptoms that might help them – and their healthcare providers – determine what might be troubling them.
According to John Hopkins Medicine, experiencing four or more of these lesser-known symptoms may mean that you or your loved one has CFS/ME:
A commonly reported symptom of many chronic illnesses is malaise. This is a general feeling of unwellness. It can be hard to pinpoint exactly what is wrong, but patients often express feeling “sick” for long periods.
The common thread woven throughout all of the potential symptoms of CFS/ME is that there is no other underlying cause. If you are feeling sick, weak, tired, and generally unwell more often than not, you have probably already attempted to find a diagnosis. For those who think they might have CFS, eliminating other causes is the first frustrating step.
Muscle Aches and Pains
The muscular aches and pains of CFS/ME can lead some people to believe that they have a flu-like illness. They might also wonder if they are sleeping incorrectly, overexerting themselves during the day, or otherwise causing this discomfort themselves.
Only after it lingers for weeks or even months do some people realize it might be part of a bigger problem.
Joint Pain and Stiffness
There is a connection between chronic fatigue syndrome and joint pain. While doctors still are not sure why this connection exists, the inflammation that the condition causes is one possibility.
Many people who have some form of arthritis also experience CFS/ME or some of its symptoms. It is unknown whether these conditions could be linked, or whether the comorbidity is a coincidence.
Headaches are a very common ailment. Most people experience them with at least some regularity. However, the headaches experienced by those with chronic fatigue syndrome are often severe and may render them unable to function temporarily.
Similar to migraine headaches, patients with CFS/ME may experience dizziness, nausea, slurred speech, visual disturbances, and vertigo-like symptoms during headaches. These events should be carefully monitored. Tracking your or your loved one’s headaches can help your doctor better understand their patterns.
While having chronic fatigue syndrome can make a person feel very tired, actually sleeping can be difficult. Aches and stiffness in the muscles and joints can make it hard to get comfortable. Focusing too hard on trying to get to sleep can also be counterproductive for many people with CFS/ME.
Some people who suffer from chronic fatigue may try to make up for lost sleep by napping during the day. They may also use caffeine or other stimulants to keep them awake and alert during important activities. Unfortunately, these tactics only work in the short-term – and they can further impair restful sleep at night.
All of this “borrowing” of energy throughout the day creates a vicious cycle that may be impossible for those with chronic fatigue to escape from. They may use sedative medications or supplements to help them relax at night, but this often leads to grogginess the following day – and the cycle begins again.
Lack of restorative sleep has been shown to impair memory. Imagine rarely getting that quality sleep – and how that would impact your memory over time.
People suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome often struggle with both short-term and long-term memory loss. This can harm both personal and professional relationships and be incredibly frustrating for the person experiencing it.
Problems with Concentration
Another common problem caused by a lack of restful and restorative sleep is difficulty concentrating. Again, a long-term lack of that meaningful sleep means even greater issues with concentration.
Think about the impact that this would have on your education, employment, and even personal relationships.
My husband has chronic fatigue syndrome and struggles with serious concentration issues. He often needs reminders to take medications, perform basic chores, or attend appointments and family functions. It isn’t that he isn’t interested in these things or doesn’t want to do them – it is genuinely that he can barely remember his daily schedule or anything else because of the brain fog that CFS/ME can cause.
Feeling dizzy is another common symptom of chronic fatigue syndrome. Although doctors are not entirely sure what causes the dizziness, the lack of restful sleep is one component.
The problem with dizziness is that it can cause other issues. Unstable or irregular gait, falls, or confusion can arise from dizziness. Unsafe driving is also possible. Some people suffering from dizziness may also become nauseous or even faint.
Sore Throat or Irritated Lymph Nodes
The lymph nodes – particularly the structures in the neck and armpits – can become swollen or enlarged with CFS/ME. This is one of the primary indicators of the condition. However, it is important to note that inflammation of the lymphatic system can indicate other conditions, too.
If you notice swollen lymph nodes, speak to your primary care physician. Depending on other symptoms, this may indicate a more serious condition and will need further evaluation.
Additionally, once certain types of cancer have been ruled out, fibromyalgia may also be a cause of inflamed lymph nodes. Some scientists actually believe that fibromyalgia and CFS/ME are related, connected, or even the same condition.
As with everything related to chronic fatigue syndrome, though, further research is still needed.
Less Common Chronic Fatigue Symptoms
There is no hard and fast list of symptoms for CFS/ME. Since every person seems to experience it differently, the list of possible symptoms is always developing as medical science learns more.
Some less common potential symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome include but are not limited to:
- Frequent or constant low-grade fever
- Stomach upset, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Sensitivity to specific odors, flavors, sounds, or other stimuli
- Night sweats
- Chills or shivering
- Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues
Are you experiencing four or more of these symptoms? If so, you may be dealing with chronic fatigue syndrome. Bring this up when speaking to your healthcare team and find out what kind of testing might be necessary to pinpoint your diagnosis appropriately.
Please remember – this blog is for educational and entertainment purposes only. I am not a doctor or healthcare professional, and I do not claim to offer medical advice. Rather, I strive to share important information regarding chronic illnesses and disabilities that do not get enough attention and discussion. I hope that in doing so, you or someone you love can get what you need to start a conversation with your doctor – and start living a better life.