Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)/myalgic encephalomyelitis (or encephalopathy) (ME) is a relatively common illness. The physical symptoms can be as disabling as multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, congestive heart failure and other chronic conditions. CFS/ME places a substantial burden on people with the condition, their families and carers, and hence on society.
There is a lack of epidemiological data for the UK, so population estimates are based on extrapolations from other countries. Overall, evidence suggests a population prevalence of at least 0.2–0.4%. This means that a general practice with 10,000 patients is likely to include up to 40 people with CFS/ME; half of these people will need input from specialist services.
Many different potential aetiologies for CFS/ME – including neurological, endocrine, immunological, genetic, psychiatric and infectious – have been investigated, but the diverse nature of the symptoms can not yet be fully explained. The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies CFS/ME as a neurological illness (G93.3), and some members of the Guideline Development Group (GDG) felt that, until research further identifies its aetiology and pathogenesis, the guideline should recognise this classification. Others felt that to do so did not reflect the nature of the illness, and risked restricting research into the causes, mechanisms and future treatments for CFS/ME.
CFS/ME comprises a range of symptoms that includes fatigue, malaise, headaches, sleep disturbances, difficulties with concentration and muscle pain. A person's symptoms may fluctuate in intensity and severity, and there is also great variability in the symptoms different people experience. CFS/ME is characterised by debilitating fatigue that is unlike everyday fatigue and can be triggered by minimal activity. This raises especially complex issues in adults and children with severe CFS/ME.
CFS/ME, like other chronic conditions for which the causes and disease processes are not yet fully understood, poses significant problems for healthcare professionals. It can cause profound, prolonged illness and disability, which has a substantial impact on people with CFS/ME and their carers. Uncertainties about diagnosis and management, and a lack of clinical guidance for healthcare professionals, have exacerbated this impact.
The recommendations in this guideline emphasise the importance of early symptom management, making an accurate diagnosis, ensuring that significant clinical features are investigated, and working in partnership with people with CFS/ME to manage the condition. Different combinations of approaches will be helpful for different people.
Definitions used in this guideline are provided in appendix D.