Chronic fatigue syndrome treatment regimens generally need to be tailored to the individual -- there's really no "standard" treatment that works for everyone. Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS or ME/CFS) is not well understood, and the medical community is divided as to what kind of treatment is most appropriate. You may find a lot of controversy over different approaches, but the key is really about finding the right combination of treatments that work for you.
The treatment plans can include any combination of the following:
- Prescription medications
- Nutritional supplements
- Lifestyle changes
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Graded exercise therapy (GET)
- Other complementary/alternative treatments
Let's take a look at all of these below:
Doctors prescribe a lot of different medications for ME/CFS. Usually, these drugs are intended to manage symptoms. Some doctors, however, believe certain medications may make the condition less severe. Generally, the second approach is based on the belief that the condition is caused and perpetuated by persistent infections or other processes that keep the immune system working overtime.
Drugs for ME/CFS can include antiviral drugs, antidepressants (to balance brain chemistry and/or treat comorbid depression), anti-anxiety drugs, sleep aids, and medications to help with symptoms such as pain or fever. Some doctors also prescribe ADD/ADHD medications for ME/CFS. Most people have to try multiple drugs and drug combinations before finding what works best for them.
- Learn more: Drugs for Treating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
While we don't have a lot of scientific evidence supporting the use of supplements for ME/CFS, many doctors and patients say they are an important part of a treatment regimen. Commonly recommended supplements may help boost the immune system, raise energy levels, improve cognitive functioning, or help manage other symptoms. As with medications, it can take a lot of experimentation to find the right combination.
As with supplements, there's no solid evidence that any one diet is helpful for everyone with ME/CFS. However, some people with the condition find that they feel better when they eliminate or emphasize certain foods. A symptom journal and/or elimination diet can help you identify problem foods.
- Learn more: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome & Diet
Typical lifestyle changes can include lowering stress, pacing yourself, improving sleep habits and getting regular moderate exercise. Some people find it helps to change jobs, work fewer hours, or quit working outside the home; however, many people with ME/CFS are able to continue working.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
It's hard to accept health-imposed changes to your life, and psychological counseling helps a lot of people with these issues. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is aimed at modifying both thoughts and actions to help you find healthier approaches to things and eliminate bad habits.
CBT is controversial because some doctors favor using it as a front-line therapy, while others believe it's more appropriate as a complementary treatment.
- Learn more: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Graded Exercise Therapy
Graded exercise therapy (GET) is aimed at improving symptoms and overall health by starting with low levels of exercise and gradually increasing the amount and intensity. Some research supports the idea that appropriate levels of exercise can help alleviate ME/CFS symptoms. Because of the increase in symptoms that even mild exertion can cause, GET is controversial as a front-line treatment for ME/CFS.
- Learn more: Exercise & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Most complementary/alternative treatment methods aren't well researched for ME/CFS. Some people report success with them, while others do not. These treatments include:
Some doctors and other health-care providers, such as homeopaths and chiropractors, have developed experimental protocols for ME/CFS. While some of these protocols are based on sound science, many are not. Be sure to thoroughly research any treatments you're considering and talk to your doctor about the possible benefits and risks.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Treating the Most Disruptive Symptoms First." Accessed September 2009
University of Maryland Medical Center. All rights reserved. "Chronic fatigue syndrome - Treatment" Accessed September 2009.