by Adam Brown
Registered Physiotherapist BScPT, MClScPT
updated Mar 13, 2023
Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) is a chronic and debilitating illness that affects millions of people worldwide. It causes extreme fatigue that is not relieved by rest, and other symptoms such as muscle pain, brain fog, headaches, and sleep disturbances that can be severely disabling.
Unfortunately, the cause of ME/CFS is still not fully understood, and there is no known cure. However, with proper management and treatment, people with ME/CFS can focus on disease control to improve their quality of life. This article aims to provide a brief overview of ME/CFS and also explore the relationship between ME/CFS and Long COVID.
What is ME/CFS?
ME/CFS is a debilitating illness that can significantly impact a person’s quality of life. It affects people of all ages, races, and genders. However, it is more common in women than men, and it usually occurs in people between the ages of 30 and 50.
The exact cause of ME/CFS is still unknown, but there are several theories. Research suggests that ME/CFS may be caused by a viral infection or other types of infections. Another theory is that ME/CFS is caused by an autoimmune response. Some researchers also believe that ME/CFS is caused by a combination of risk factors such as genetic predisposition, environmental factors, and stress.
Symptoms of ME/CFS
The primary symptom of ME/CFS is severe fatigue that is not relieved by rest. However, ME/CFS is a complex illness, and people with ME/CFS can experience a wide range of symptoms. Here are some of the common symptoms of ME/CFS:
- Extreme fatigue symptoms
- Neurological Symptoms
- Muscle pain and weakness
- Cognitive difficulties such as brain fog, memory problems, and cognitive impairment
- Sleep dysfunction and sleep disturbances such as insomnia, sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
- Digestive problems such as bloating, constipation, and nausea
- Sensitivity to light, noise, and smell
- Flu-like symptoms such as sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, and fever
Diagnosis of ME/CFS
The diagnosis of ME/CFS is often challenging because there is no specific test or biomarker for the illness. Doctors usually diagnose ME/CFS based on a person’s symptoms and medical history. A doctor may also perform some tests to rule out other medical conditions that can cause similar symptoms. The diagnosis of ME/CFS is usually made after the person has been experiencing the symptoms for at least six months.
Treatment of ME/CFS
There is no known cure for ME/CFS, but with proper management and treatment, people with ME/CFS can improve their quality of life. The treatment of ME/CFS usually involves a combination of medication, lifestyle changes, and therapies. Here are some of the treatments that are commonly used for ME/CFS:
- Medication is usually prescribed to manage specific symptoms of ME/CFS such as pain, sleep disturbances, and depression. Antidepressants, pain relievers, and sleep aids are some of the medications that may be prescribed for ME/CFS.
- Lifestyle changes such as getting enough rest, eating a healthy diet, and remaining as active as the persons symptoms will allow can help manage ME/CFS.
- Pacing refers to behaviors and techniques that help people to conserve energy and allocate physical and mental activity throughout a day or week to maximize function while focusing on symptom management. People with ME/CFS must avoid overexerting themselves as increases in physical activity have been shown to make symptoms worse causing a state called post-exertional malaise (PEM) or post exertional symptom exacerbation (PESE).
Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Long COVID
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a new condition known as Long COVID or Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC). Long COVID is a condition that affects people who have had COVID-19, and it causes a wide range of symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, muscle weakness, and joint pain. The symptoms of Long COVID are similar to those of ME/CFS, and there is growing evidence that Long COVID may be a risk factor for developing ME/CFS.
Studies have shown that up to 30% of people who have had COVID-19 experience post-COVID symptoms, which can last for months after the initial infection. In fact, some experts believe that Long COVID may be a form of ME/CFS triggered by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Clinical trials conducted in the UK found that out of 153 people with Long COVID, 13% met the diagnostic criteria for ME/CFS after six months of symptoms. Another study conducted in Italy found that out of 143 people with Long COVID, 53% had persistent fatigue six months after the initial infection.
The similarities between ME/CFS and Long COVID have led some experts to suggest that the two conditions may be part of a continuum of post-viral syndromes.
Long COVID can cause or worsen some mental health conditions. It is important to note that Long COVID is not a mental health condition itself, rather it is a condition that can have mental health consequences.
People suffering from Long COVID may also experience postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) which shares many symptoms with ME/CFS and involves changes to the autonomic nervous system. It is important to work with a health professional that understand both of these conditions to gain a clear picture of what treatment strategy may be most effective.
ME/CFS is a complex and debilitating illness that affects millions of people worldwide. Although there is no known cure for ME/CFS, with proper management and treatment, people with ME/CFS can improve their quality of life. The diagnosis of ME/CFS is often challenging, and doctors usually diagnose the condition based on a person’s symptoms and medical history.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a new condition known as Long COVID, which shares many symptoms with ME/CFS. There is growing evidence that Long COVID may be a risk factor for developing ME/CFS, and some experts believe that the two conditions may be part of a continuum of post-viral syndromes. More research is needed to fully understand the relationship between ME/CFS and Long COVID.
If you have been diagnosed with ME/CFS or Long COVID, it is essential to work with your healthcare provider to manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life. Treatment for ME/CFS and Long COVID usually involves a combination of medication, lifestyle changes, and therapies. By taking an active role in your healthcare, you can better manage your symptoms and live a fulfilling life despite the challenges posed by these conditions.
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