It is estimated that there are over 250,000 people in England and Wales with ME/CFS, with about 2.4 times as many women affected as men.
The guideline covers every aspect of ME/CFS in children, young people and adults from its identification and assessment before and after diagnosis to its management, monitoring and review.
Paul Chrisp, director of the Centre for Guidelines at NICE, said: “As well as bringing together the best available scientific evidence, we’ve also listened to the real, lived experience and testimony of people with ME/CFS to produce a balanced guideline which has their wellbeing at its heart. NICE hopes that system partners and the ME/CFS community will work together to make sure these important recommendations are implemented.”
Peter Barry, Consultant Clinical Advisor for NICE and chair of the guideline committee, said: “This guideline will provide clear support for people living with ME/CFS, their families and carers, and for clinicians. It recognises that ME/CFS is a complex, chronic medical condition that can have a significant effect on people's quality of life.
“We know that people with ME/CFS have had difficulty in getting their illness acknowledged, and the guideline provides guidance for suspecting and diagnosing the condition, recognising that there is no specific test for it. The guideline emphasises the importance of a personalised management plan for areas such as energy management - including the importance of rest and staying within the individual’s energy limits - the treatment of specific symptoms, and guidance on managing flares and exacerbations.”
The guideline identifies the symptoms of ME/CFS as debilitating fatigue that is worsened by activity, post-exertional malaise, unrefreshing sleep or sleep disturbance, and cognitive difficulties (‘brain fog’). It says that people with all 4 symptoms that have lasted 3 months or more should be directed to a ME/CFS specialist team (in the case of children this should be a paediatric specialist team) experienced and trained in the management of ME/CFS to confirm their diagnosis and develop a holistic personalised management plan in line with this guideline.
People with ME/CFS should receive individually tailored support focused on personal agreed goals and a range of approaches should be used depending on the patient's preferences and priorities.
And the guideline makes it clear that any programme based on fixed incremental increases in physical activity or exercise, for example graded exercise therapy (GET), should not be offered for the treatment of ME/CFS. Discussions with stakeholders highlighted that the term ‘GET’ is understood in different ways and the guideline sets out clearly what is meant by the term.
The importance of ensuring that people remain within their energy limits when undertaking activity of any kind is also highlighted. The guideline recommends that any physical activity or exercise programmes should only be considered for people with ME/CFS in specific circumstances and should begin by establishing the person’s physical activity capability at a level that does not worsen their symptoms. It also says a physical activity or exercise programme should only be offered on the basis that it is delivered or overseen by a physiotherapist in an ME/CFS specialist team and is regularly reviewed.
Although cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has sometimes been assumed to be a cure for ME/CFS, the guideline recommends it should only be offered to support people who live with ME/CFS to manage their symptoms, improve their functioning and reduce the distress associated with having a chronic illness.
Baroness Finlay, Consultant in Palliative Medicine, Clinical Lead for Palliative Care for Wales, Velindre NHS Trust, and vice-chair of the guideline committee, said: “ME/CFS is a complex long-term condition that causes disordered energy metabolism and can be profoundly disabling. Those with ME/CFS need to be listened to, understood and supported to adapt their lives. The committee members involved in this guideline have worked particularly hard to ensure care becomes more empathetic and focused on the individual’s needs.”