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Chronic fatigue syndrome (SFS) is sometimes referred to as "yuppie Flu," because the first diagnoses were among affluent Americans in the 1980s. Sufferers faced suggestions that they'd invented a disease, because the symptoms were hard to classify and no-one knew the cause. Chronic fatigue sufferers face sleeping troubles, persistent lethargy, exhaustion, headaches, muscle pains and mental fogginess. It's diagnosed by symptoms, since no-one can offer an evidence-backed explanation for its etiology — the process that causes it.
Because no-one could explain how it happened, CFS was often treated as a psychological problem. While doctors experimented with treatments drawn from psychiatry, onlookers questioned whether the disease even really existed. Wasn't it just a fancy new way of saying some-one was run-down, and needed a rest?
While CFS often doesn't get any worse, it doesn't get better by itself either. Sufferers face years of living with a disease with no known origin, treatment plan or cure.
CFS compromises quality of life quite severely, so doctors look for ways to bolster quality of life where they can't treat the disease directly. Often, they'll look for symptomatic relief like painkillers and sleeping tablets. Lifestyle strategies might be taught to help cope better with sleep disturbances and the difficulty standing upright that is a common, perplexing symptom of the disease. Some people will do their own searching, finding complementary health treatments that help with the symptoms, including acupuncture and dietary changes, which can help with the IBS-like symptoms some CFS sufferers undergo. And doctors will often find themselves prescribing antidepressants to CFS sufferers who understandably find the disease depressing.
But none of this is a constructive treatment plan, aimed at helping the patient get well per se. It's just combatting the symptoms, as they occur, symptom by symptom. And that's because it's hard to fight something when you don't know what it is. Worse, the emphasis on symptomatic treatment, psychiatric medication and coping strategies leads many to form the belief that CFS is a psychological problem, with all the stigma and denigration that comes with that. And it's probably not.
What Is CFS?
So far, we've talked about the "face" of CFS, the way the disease presents itself. But behind your face is you. What's behind the face of CFS? What is the disease, really?
Some possibilities include psychological problems. It can be hard to differentiate between CFS and major depression, and there's almost certainly some diagnostic overspill, with some people with CFS being given a depression diagnosis and vice versa. Or CFS could be a whole new mental health problem, one related to the "burnout" of the fast-paced yuppie years and the increaingly demanding American working week.
CFS presents neurological symptoms, including balance disturbances and problems sleeping, and disrupted cognitive function, especially in the form of slowed reaction times and decreased concentration. These problems are found int traumatic neurological issues like head injury and stroke, as well as in degenerative neurological conditions. Could CFS be a neurological condition?
Then, there's metabolic disorders like diabetes and hypothyroidism. These alter the way the body works and can miimic CFS so closely that doctors frequently test patients with CFS-like symptoms for them. Could CFS be an as-yet-unknown metabolic disorder? Other shave pointed to autoimmune diseases ike lupus.