Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), is an illness that affects a person’s nervous system (commonly called a ‘neurological illness’).
CFS is a complex illness, in which we do not know the potential cause.
For some individuals, the condition may be triggered suddenly by a viral infection, toxic exposure, anaesthetic, immunisation, gastroenteritis or trauma. In other people, it may develop slowly over months or years.
There are many subtypes of CFS, which means that an individual management plan must be developed for each person with the condition. Applying a particular treatment for one subtype can be very damaging to another subtype. Therefore, an individual management plan must be developed for each person with CFS.
Symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome:
The main feature of CFS is a type of exhaustion experiencing flu-like symptoms after exercise and/or not having enough energy for daily activities.
Research shows that people with CFS have a different physiological response to activity or exercise from other people. This includes abnormal exhaustion after any form of exertion, and a worsening of other symptoms. The response may be delayed, perhaps after 24 hours. Depending on the amount and type of exercise, it may result in post-exertional malaise for a few days, or serious relapses lasting weeks, months or even years.
Because CFS is a very complex chronic illness, many other symptoms will occur and must be present for diagnosis. These include;
- problems with thinking, concentrating, memory loss, vision, clumsiness, muscle twitching or tingling
- disrupted sleep
- pain or aches in the muscles, joints or head
- drop in blood pressure, feeling dizzy or pale
- palpitations, increased heart rate or shortness of breath with exertion or on standing
- allergies or sensitivities to light, smells, touch, sound, foods, chemicals and medications
- gastrointestinal changes such as nausea, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea
- urinary problems
- sore throat, tender lymph nodes and a flu-like feeling
- marked weight change – extreme loss or gain
- inability to cope with temperature changes
A person’s symptoms will fluctuate over short periods of time, even from hour to hour.
Diagnosis and treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome:
Currently, there is no single test to diagnose CFS. Doctors make a diagnosis by excluding all other illnesses after a person has had symptoms continually for six months. The person’s results from routine medical tests will often be normal, but additional tests will show abnormalities.
People who receive an early diagnosis and early treatment tend to do better. Having a supportive community of family, friends, school, work, employers and health workers, who understand the potential seriousness of CFS, can improve recovery for people with the condition. It is important to find a doctor who is not only sympathetic to CFS but can suggest ways to manage with the condition. Treatment choice will vary and will depend on the results of the additional testing.
Chronic fatigue syndrome and exercise:
People with CFS react to physical activity differently. Exercise can be a problem for some people, because physical activity can worsen their symptoms.
Vigorous aerobic exercise is helpful for many chronic illnesses, but people with CFS can’t tolerate traditional exercise routines hence must learn to pace activities. It is important that they work with their healthcare professionals to create a weekly routine that is especially for that person and focuses on doing as much activity as is possible, without any worsening of symptoms in the following days or weeks.
A person with CFS should never be persuaded to push past their limit as it can be dangerous and cause long-term relapse. The goal is to balance rest and activity to avoid decreasing fitness levels from lack of activity and flare-ups of illness due to overexertion.
For some people with CFS, as time passes and their condition improves, they will find they can do more, but it is a slow and gradual process.
It is very important that any activity plan be started slowly and increased slowly. When beginning an activity program, some people with CFS may only be able to stretch for as little as a few minutes.
General exercise tips for people with chronic fatigue syndrome:
Be guided by your doctor, specialist or allied health professional (Physiotherapist/Accredited Exercise physiologist), but general suggestions include:
- Experiment to find the type of exercise that works best for you. Choose from a range of gentle activities such as stretching, yoga, tai chi, walking and light weight training.
- Keep an activity diary so you have a long-term picture of your performance levels and factors that might impact on your symptoms.
- Stop the physical activity well before you feel any symptom flare. Pacing yourself is very important.
- Remember that the amount of exercise you can do will change from one day to the next.
- Listen to your body – if you don’t feel up to exercising on a particular day, don’t!
- Find out as much as you can about your condition. Make sure you consult with your health professionals who fully understand CFS as a ‘real’ biomedical condition.
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