Sleep Disorders

Updated 01 August 2017

There may be a cure for chronic fatigue syndrome

A new study may have found the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome, and new ways to cure the condition.

Imagine if your muscles kept telling your brain you were exhausted, even when you're resting. That's what it's like for those who struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome, and researchers suggest in a new report that they now know why.

The disorder may cause the body to amplify fatigue signals associated with physical activity, the researchers explained, which is why some patients become worn out just walking across a room.

The lowdown on CFS

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also referred to as "yuppie flu" in the 1980s, is a complex disorder, characterised by severe disabling fatigue that does not improve with bed-rest and may worsen with physical or mental activity. People with CFS function at a significantly lower level of activity than before the onset of the condition.

According to a study published in the South African Family Practice, the prevalence of CFS is higher in women than men, and sufferers are mostly 35 and older. The cause for CFS is yet unknown, but researchers might be one step closer.

Muscle metabolites could be to blame

"People with chronic fatigue are essentially sensing muscle metabolites [products produced when energy is expended] while they are not doing anything, and they're not supposed to be," said study author Dr Roland Staud, a professor of rheumatology and clinical immunology at the University of Florida College of Medicine. "Generally speaking, when we're at rest, we don't feel our muscles."

The study involved 58 people with chronic fatigue syndrome, which is also known as systemic exertion intolerance disease (SEID). The researchers injected the participants' back and buttock muscles with either a solution of the painkiller lidocaine or a saline solution.

Possible new treatments

Staud's team found the lidocaine solution helped ease the patients' symptoms of exhaustion. The people who got these injections reported a 38% drop in their fatigue levels.

The researchers noted the findings suggest that the muscles and other peripheral tissues are involved in chronic fatigue. They concluded that lidocaine injections helped block the abnormal signaling of muscle metabolites.

Extreme exhaustion

More investigation is needed, but the study authors said their findings may lead to new treatment options for the 2.5 million Americans diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, as well as people with other conditions associated with extreme exhaustion, such as lupus, cancer and depression.

"It's unlikely the central nervous system creates fatigue out of nothing," Staud said in a university news release. "It uses just very minute fatigue signals that it receives and inappropriately amplifies them, which results in significant impact on the quality of life of these individuals." The study was published recently in the Journal of Pain Research.

So if your fatigue can't be relieved by a good night's sleep or explained by a doctor, rest assured that there might soon be more developments in treatment options.


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Sleep disorders expert

Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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