Myalgic Encephalomyalitis (ME)

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis or ME)

What is ME?

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, commonly referred to as ME, is a very debilitating condition which affects less than one per cent of the population in this country. Although rare, it can dramatically alter the quality of life among a minority of patients to the point where they are totally unable to participate in any aspect of family or social life.

Since the cause of ME is unknown, there is no specific treatment available for sufferers. Some years ago, this condition earned the title of "yuppie flu" because of its prevalence among young urban professionals!

What causes it?

One of the most commonly reported symptoms among sufferers of ME is fatigue, although the cause of the condition itself remains unknown. There appears to be a link between ME and depression, since many patients who go on to develop ME have suffered from depression in the past.

Another link being investigated by the medical profession relates to a viral connection. Many ME patients report that their condition developed after an acute, flu-like illness but, yet no definite viral link has been established.

What are the symptoms?

The major symptom of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a feeling of extreme fatigue and exhaustion. All of us suffer from exhaustion from time to time, but a good night's sleep usually eliminates it and leaves us feeling fit and well again. The ME sufferer continues to experience excessive tiredness even after adequate rest.

Among the other symptoms which may be present are:

  • widespread muscular aches and pains
  • inability to concentrate
  • disturbed sleeping patterns
  • frequent headaches

Should I seek medical help?

Anyone who suffers from chronic fatigue on an on-going basis and can find no rational explanation for it, should seek medical advice.

"Severe chronic fatigue should not be ignored"

It must be pointed out that fatigue is a common problem among the general population and can be a symptom of very many illnesses. However, severe and debilitating fatigue, such as that experienced by people who are suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, should always be medically investigated.

Your GP will perform a routine medical examination and take a detailed history of your symptoms. He will also perform a number of blood tests to exclude the more common causes of chronic fatigue such as anaemia or thyroid gland disease. He will also investigate any history of depression or anxiety.

Can I help myself?

If a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is made by your GP, there is a great deal you can do to help yourself. While rest is very important in the first few weeks of your illness, it is not a long-term solution. Rather, it is much more important that you gradually ease yourself back into your old routine as part of the overall rehabilitation process.

It may be helpful to set yourself specific goals and targets (in conjunction with the advice given by your GP), even though you may not feel well enough to function fully for a period of time.

Medication, such as anti-depressant drugs, may help if your GP feels there is an underlying suggestion of depression. However, these should only be used as a short-term measure and have been known to help some sufferers of ME to re-integrate themselves into society.

Another form of treatment, which may be suggested by your GP, is a rehabilitation programme called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (or CBT). This may help some people with ME to effectively cope with their illness from both a physical and psychological point of view, although it does not work for all patients.

Coping with ME

People who are diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome need to reduce the demands they make on themselves and the demands made on them by others. This does not mean that they must withdraw from society altogether and become completely inactive.

A diagnosis of ME will usually result in the patient being unable to return to their employment for a period of time. For those with very stressful jobs - which may have contributed to their condition in the first place - it is worthwhile considering an alternative career.

With proper management, most ME sufferers tend to improve and may return to full recovery within two years of diagnosis. However, a small minority of patients go on to become chronically unwell.

Since Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a much-misunderstood condition, it may be helpful to seek out the support and understanding of other sufferers by joining a support group.

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