Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is not actually a chronic illness and sufferers can overcome symptoms by increasing exercise and thinking positively, Oxford University has found.
A landmark study which followed hundreds of sufferers for two years found that those who were encouraged to be more active and alter their mind-set suffered less fatigue and were able to cope with daily life more easily.
The condition, also known as ME and once dismissed as “Yuppie flu”, is a recognised illness which affects around 250,000 people in Britain.
Sufferers report extreme fatigue, joint pain, headaches and memory problems, but doctors still do not know the cause or cure.
But the new study found that graded exercise therapy (GET), in which sufferers gradually increase activity levels, as well as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which encourages positive thinking and behaviour, had a dramatic impact.
The finding is important because many CFS sufferers believe that exercise will make their condition worse.
The study found that there was no deterioration over two and a half years and most people reported feeling less tired and were able to complete daily tasks more easily.
Yesterday Prof Michael Sharpe, the study author, of Oxford University, said that it was difficult to find an umbrella cure for CFS or ME because it was likely to encompass several illnesses with different causes.
“It’s probably not all the same thing,” he said. “It’s quite likely that within that there is a range of different causes. Nobody has really been able to pin down a way of dividing it up.”
The illness was first diagnosed in the 19th century as neurasthenia, but has been given many other names since including CFS, myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), system exertion intolerance disease and Epstein-Barr virus. Suggestions about the cause have ranged from infections, gut bacteria, stress, depression, immune problems, trauma, environmental toxins or allergies.
In the new study, 481 people were followed for around two years to see how they benefited from four different treatments. It was found that neither standard medical treatment, including medication to control pain, nausea and sleeping problems, nor “adaptive pacing therapy”, which helps patients adapt to their disabilities, had little long-term impact.
But gradually increasing exercise and therapy to remove patients’ negative thoughts that they would never get better seemed to work. Prof Sharpe said the study was likely to prove controversial because a “minority” believe that CFS is either caused by a virus or is chronic and cannot be alleviated.
“They seem to think this research casts some doubt on the nature of the illness and implies that it is a mental illness and not a real illness,” he said. “The science is not giving us any strong new answers.”
The main symptom of CFS is persistent physical and mental fatigue (exhaustion). This does not go away with sleep or rest and limits your usual activities.
Most people with CFS describe this fatigue as overwhelming, and a different type of tiredness from what they have experienced before.
Other symptoms include:
* Muscular pain, joint pain and severe headaches
* Poor short-term memory and concentration, and difficulty organising thoughts and finding the right words ('brain fog')
* Painful lymph nodes (small glands of the immune system)
* Stomach pain and other problems similar to irritable bowel syndrome, such as bloating, constipation, diarrhoea and nausea
* Sore throat
* Sleeping problems, such as insomnia and feeling that sleep is not refreshing
* Sensitivity or intolerance to light, loud noise, alcohol and certain foods
* Psychological difficulties, such as depression, irritability and panic attacks