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Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Myths

Get the Facts


Updated October 12, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

It's hard enough to learn about chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) when you're struggling just to get by, and the abundance of myths surrounding the illness make it much more difficult.

Sometimes people in our lives have bought into these myths, and sometimes even members of the medical community seem to have done so. Either way, they can be detrimental to you as you wrestle with this serious and potentially debilitating condition.

Below, you'll find some of the most common myths, along with the facts.

ME/CFS = "Just Tired" & Needing More Sleep

When you say, "I have chronic fatigue syndrome," it's amazing how many people say. "Yeah, I get tired, too."

But contrary to what the name of the illness suggests, ME/CFS is a lot more than just "getting tired" a lot. For starters, people with ME/CFS don't really get tired, they are tired. All the time.

One of the defining characteristics of ME/CFS is fatigue that's not relieved by rest. That means it doesn't matter how much someone sleeps, they're still going to be tired. Their sleep is not refreshing.

ME/CFS also can involve dozens more symptoms, including: sore throats; flu-like body aches; migraines; loss of cognitive abilities and short-term memory; sensitivities to light, noise and temperature; dizziness upon standing; and cardiac abnormalities.

While the central mechanism isn't yet understood, something appears to be preventing the body from recuperating during sleep, which may have to do with abnormal energy metabolism. The end result is exhaustion (and many other symptoms) that never goes away.

More information about ME/CFS, sleep problems, and other symptoms:

Type-A Personality Burnout (Yuppie Flu)

Especially when someone who was formerly a high-energy, type-A personality develops ME/CFS, people tend to regard it as "burnout." A few decades ago, it was dubbed "yuppie flu."

However, people of all personality types can end up with ME/CFS—not just the stress-junkie type-As. Back when ME/CFS first got a lot of attention, it's possible that the type-As were just the ones who pushed their doctors hard enough to get a diagnosis, and they may also have been more likely to talk to the media about it.

ME/CFS is believed to be caused by a combination of factors, including genetic predisposition and environmental factors (exposure to toxins, infectious agents, etc.) Children can get it, elderly people can get it, and laid-back Type-B personalities can get it.

More information about ME/CFS causes and risk factors:

A Form of Depression or Hypochondria

It's hard for some people to believe in a medical condition that's not proven by a blood test or some kind of scan. Throw in symptoms relating to mood and treat it with antidepressants, and people jump to the conclusion that ME/CFS is simply a form of depression.

However, several studies demonstrate that depression is significantly different from ME/CFS, and that current diagnostic criteria can tell the difference. Research also shows multiple unique physiological abnormalities in people with this illness. They have problems with the immune system, the nervous system, the hormones, and possibly with cellular function.

Antidepressants are a common ME/CFS treatment because they alter the function of certain neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain). The same neurotransmitters may be involved in depression, but they're also involved in multiple non-psychological functions, including sleep, memory, cognitive ability and some aspects of muscle function.

More information about the neurology of & treatments for ME/CFS:

More Exercise Would Help

Often, well-meaning people say things like, "If you'd get out and get some exercise, it'd help you snap out of this." But exercise is an extremely tough thing for people with ME/CFS.

A symptom that's drawn a lot of researchers' attention is post-exertional malaise. For reasons we're just beginning to understand, exercise does not increase energy in people with this illness like it does for healthy people. In fact, exertion can make symptoms far worse.

Knowledgeable doctors have long recognized that patients with ME/CFS—even those who do well during exercise—tend to have a major symptom flare after exertion that can last for several days. Some research has identified unique abnormalities in the blood after exercise that may help explain this symptom.

People with severe cases may not be able to tolerate much movement at all, and some end up in a wheelchair. Others spend the bulk of their time in bed. In milder cases, walking around the block may be too much. Each person has to gauge for themselves how much exercise they can handle without exacerbating symptoms.

More information on exercising with ME/CFS:

Also See:


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Who's at Risk?"Accessed September 2012.

Hawk C, Jason LA, Torres-Harding S. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 2006;13(3):244-51. Differential diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome and major depressive disorder.

Mariman A, et al. Acta clinica Belgica. 2012 Jan-Feb;67(1):19-24. Subjective sleep quality and daytime sleepiness in a large sample of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).

Mikirova N, Casciari J, Hunninghake R. Alternative therapies in health and medicine. 2012 Jan-Feb;18(1):36-40. The assessment of the energy metabolism in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome by serum fluorescence emission.

Nijs J, et al. Clinical Rehabilitation. 2008 May;22(5):426-35. Can exercise limits prevent post-exertional malaise in chronic fatigue syndrome? An uncontrolled clinical trial.

Rahman K, et al. Sleep. 2011 May 1;34(5):671-8. Sleep-wake behavior in chronic fatigue syndrome.

Yoshiuchi K, et al. Physiological Behavior. 2007 Dec 5;92(5):963-8. A real-time assessment of the effect of exercise in chronic fatigue syndrome.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Who's at Risk?"Accessed September 2012.

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