Fatigue has become ubiquitous thanks to our busier-than-ever lifestyles. But for a million Americans (and two to four times as many women as men), extreme exhaustion stems from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), a complex disorder characterized by ongoing, debilitating tiredness—the kind that keeps you from functioning like your normal self, says chronic fatigue syndrome specialist Leonard A. Jason, Ph.D., professor of psychology at DePaul University.
A timely diagnosis is often tough to come by: no simple labs or diagnostic tests exist to confirm chronic fatigue syndrome, docs haven’t been able to pinpoint a cause, and a number of CFS symptoms can mimic other illnesses, such as fibromyalgia and depression. In fact, a staggering 90 percent of cases go undiagnosed, Jason says.
Think you could be one of the women slipping through the cracks? Ask yourself the questions below to see if chronic fatigue syndrome could be on the table. If you answer “yes” one or more times, check in with a physician who can rule out other illnesses and help you get an proper diagnosis and treatment. While there’s no cure for CFS, the right pro may be able to help you alleviate some of the symptoms through energy management, cognitive behavioral therapy, self care, and group support.
It’s one of the key (and most frustrating) components of CFS: sleep, even lots of it, isn’t refreshing. Most patients with the disorder still feel completely spent even with ample amounts of rest, says Jason. Imagine clocking a solid eight, even 10 or 12 hours on the reg but still barely being able to pull yourself out of bed in the morning. That’s how CFS often feels.
What triggers that exhaustion is still a mystery, though anecdotally some people with chronic fatigue syndrome say they developed symptoms immediately after a viral infection. Some experts believe CFS is caused by a combination of factors, including an over-reactive immune system and hormonal abnormalities—we just haven’t found any definitive links.
While most people have experienced a stretch of a few days (or even weeks) where they just can’t nix that tired feeling, a CFS diagnosis only comes after someone’s suffered from severe exhaustion for over six months, which considerably narrows the pool of candidates. “Around one-fourth of the population feels fatigued at any one time, but only around 5 percent of those people feel fatigued for more than six months at a time,” says Jason.
It doesn’t take more than just a little bit of physical activity or emotional stress for someone with CFS to become bone-tired, says Jason. Patients are hyper-sensitive to common, daily activities (like commuting to work, or, in serious cases, even walking up the stairs) and can take days to recover from small amounts of exertion. If you have CFS, you probably aren’t hitting the gym on the regular.
That crushing exhaustion isn’t all CFS patients deal with—headaches, muscle soreness, joint pain, swollen lymph nodes, and a sore throat can all be symptoms of the disease. Docs aren’t sure what causes the aches, but there’s ample research to suggest chronic inflammation in the body may be tied to CFS, which could explain some of the pain, says Jason.
If you have been diagnosed with other achy conditions such as fibromyalgia or rheumatoid arthritis, but your current treatment isn’t giving you relief, it’s worth talking to your doc about chronic fatigue syndrome, he says. Note: Fibromyalgia can often occur alongside CFS.
More than 90 percent of patients with CFS complain of cognitive issues such as slow thinking, trouble comprehending what they’re reading, impaired memory, or generally feeling like they’re stuck with brain fog. Depression is also common. Research has shown that CFS may be associated with disruptions in the brain’s information-processing networks, which could explain cognitive and mental issues, says Jason.
Don’t sweat it if you can’t remember where you left your keys, but if you’re struggling to put a sentence together or are struggling with depression, see a doc.