Chronic fatigue syndrome

Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Bryony Henderson

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis, is the feeling of excessive tiredness that makes tasks harder to complete. Learn how to manage the condition

What is chronic fatigue syndrome?

Chronic fatigue syndrome is also called myalgic encephalomyelitis. This condition is mostly characterised by the feeling of being excessively tired, along with other symptoms. 

What are the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome?

The most common symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome are:

  • Extreme tiredness

  • Lack of concentration

  • Difficulty remembering things

  • Tiredness even after sleeping and resting 

  • Taking a long time to recover after exercise

  • Difficulty sleeping 

Other less common symptoms include:

  • Headaches

  • Muscle pain

  • Heart palpitations – the feeling of a fast or irregular heart beat

  • Symptoms such as dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting which are triggered by sitting up or standing

Any of these symptoms can change in severity throughout the day as well as from day to day.

The combination of these symptoms means many people living with chronic fatigue syndrome struggle to cope with everyday activities.

It’s often incredibly difficult to get out of bed, so many people stay in bed for a large portion of the day. This has a huge impact on their life and can be very frustrating. You might find that your mental health suffers when living with chronic fatigue syndrome. 

Symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome worsen after an activity, which is known as post-exertional malaise. It may be that you cannot get out of bed for days or weeks after an activity.

What causes chronic fatigue syndrome?

The causes of chronic fatigue syndrome are unknown. It’s been suggested that particular illnesses may trigger the condition, for example, bacterial or viral infections.

Other possible triggers are problems with the immune system, hormone imbalances, stress or genetics. 

How is chronic fatigue syndrome diagnosed?

Chronic fatigue syndrome is diagnosed by a medical professional asking you a few questions at your appointment. These questions may be:

  • How does what you’re able to do now differ from what you used to do?

  • Does your tiredness get better with rest?

  • How is your sleep?

  • What happens if you do manage to complete an activity?

  • Do you have any additional symptoms?

There are no specific tests for chronic fatigue syndrome, which means the diagnosis is based on the information you give your doctor and by ruling out other conditions. To rule out other conditions, you may be asked to do a urine or blood test.

Chronic fatigue syndrome can develop over time so if symptoms have been present for a while, the chance of this diagnosis is much higher.

How long does chronic fatigue syndrome last?

Chronic fatigue syndrome is a long-term condition, but the length of time it lasts will depend on the person. It’s best to talk to a doctor about any concerns.

Who is at risk of chronic fatigue syndrome?

People of any age can be at risk of chronic fatigue syndrome. The condition is most likely to develop in your mid-20s or mid-40s and affects women more than men.

Chronic fatigue syndrome in children

Chronic fatigue syndrome in children has many of the same symptoms as adults. Some slight differences include:

  • An increased likelihood to suffer from symptoms related to standing upright. These include dizziness and feeling faint and lightheaded

  • An increased possibility to develop it following an illness like flu or glandular fever

The most common age for children to start getting chronic fatigue syndrome symptoms is between 13 and 15 years.

How to treat chronic fatigue syndrome

There is currently no cure for chronic fatigue syndrome and the treatment is based on symptom management.

To treat the symptoms, you can try:

  • Medication to help you sleep

  • Medication for pain relief 

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

  • Energy management – this will allow you to learn how to best manage your energy so you can make the most of your good days without worsening your symptoms.

When should I seek help?

If you feel extremely tired and you’re finding it difficult to carry out daily activities, it’s best to get in contact with a doctor.

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi