Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is a disease of unknown aetiology which presents with headaches, exhaustion, sleep disturbances, difficulties with concentration and sometimes joint pain.
The condition was historically known as Myalgic Encephalitis (ME) but in recent years the term CFS has been preferred.
Exhaustion is a primary feature of CFS but it’s more than simply just tiredness. Sufferers don’t have any capacity for daily activities and in some cases the limitations can be severe.
In milder cases or when the condition is improving, the individual may be able to work but may need days off to rest periodically. At the opposite end of the spectrum, even simple tasks such as carrying out household chores or going for a short walk can be impossible.
Around a quarter of a million people in the UK have CFS 1, with more women than men affected. It typically strikes between the 20s and 40s, but it can also occur in children, usually during the early teen years. The condition nearly always causes long term disability but around 5% of adults are able to make a full recovery 2.
The cause of CFS remains unclear with a number of different theories suggested including immunological and endocrine abnormalities, dysfunction of the autonomic system, viruses such as meningitis and Epstein-Barr or atypical processing of pain 3. A prior history of psychological illness increases the likelihood of developing CFS threefold 4.
The treatment offered varies depending on the extent to which the individual is affected by CFS but focuses on trying to stabilise the psychological effects of the condition, as well as maintain and then increase physical exertion.
Early intervention is believed to be key in preventing the condition from becoming severe.
There’s no medication available specifically to designed to treat CFS but a combination of painkillers and low dose antidepressants may be prescribed.
Graded exercise therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy are effective treatments for CFS, but many take many months or even years to achieve the desired result. It’s also essential that the individual delivering the treatment has experience in CFS.
Making lifestyle changes can also be beneficial such as avoiding alcohol, cutting back on caffeine and sugars, minimising stress and eating regularly.
How acupuncture can help
At present, conventional medicine is unable to offer a guaranteed treatment for CFS but the evidence from observational trials 5 suggests that when combined with acupuncture, a consistently better outcome may be achieved.
Although it’s not being proposed that CFS is a solely psychological condition, there’s some evidence which points to an improvement in symptoms by the promotion of relaxation.
Acupuncture can be effective as an adjunctive treatment by releasing neurotransmitters and by shutting down the part of the brain which is sensitive to pain and stress. This helps to reduce insomnia and the perception of pain, as well as boosting relaxation 6. In addition, the release of nocturnal melatonin can also be increased which promotes better sleep too 7.
Releasing immunomodulatory and vascular factors 8 and stimulating the nerves and tissues to change the pain response in the spinal cord and the brain 9 can help with joint stiffness, inflammation and discomfort. This can be further helped by enhancing microcirculation 10.
- Cairns 2005
- Gur 2008, White 2001
- Harvey 2008
- Wang 2008, Huang 2008, Guo 2007
- Wu 1999
- Spence 2004
- Kavoussi 2007, Zijlstra 2003
- Pomeranz 1987, Zhao 2008
- Komori 2009