Tomorrow, May 12th, is International Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Awareness Day, a day to recognize and support individuals living with this illness as well as advocate for further research on both a cause and a cure. Myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), also known as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), is a complex and debilitating health condition that’s gaining more recognition as medical science advances. Keep reading to learn more about the history of CFS in addition to how occupational therapy can help improve the likelihood of a full recovery.

The History Of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Medically recognized as early as 1934, this disease was once confused as an atypical form of polio, which speaks volumes to the severity of its symptoms. In fact, Florence Nightingale, a profound figure in medical history and considered the founder of modern nursing, is a famous case of suspected CFS.

As a way to commemorate her battle with this illness, Nightingale’s birthday was chosen as an international awareness day for chronic immunological and neurological diseases, which is why we recognize ME/CFS on May 12th. Furthermore, to honor her advocacy for the nursing profession and recognize her struggles with CFS, in 1988 a Canadian ME/CFS foundation was named after her: The Nightingale Research Foundation

What Is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)?

CFS is a serious, long-term illness that leaves many patients bedridden and housebound. In order to be diagnosed, three primary symptoms must be apparent:

  • Post-exertional malaise (PEM) or the worsening of symptoms following minor physical or mental exertion. This is often described as a “crash” or “collapse” and may display as mental fog, headaches, dizziness as well as severe tiredness.
  • A six month history of severe fatigue that has affected the patient’s ability to perform their usual activities.
  • Issues with sleeping, from difficulty falling and staying asleep to waking up after a full night’s sleep and not feeling rested.

In addition to these main three symptoms, one of these other symptoms must be apparent as well:

  • Cognitive issues such as trouble thinking quickly, memory issues and paying attention to details.
  • Orthostatic intolerance, or the worsening of symptoms while standing or sitting upright. This may display as dizziness, weakness, vision issues or even fainting.

Due to the number of other illnesses that display similar symptoms, a patient is often not diagnosed until other health conditions are ruled out, which can become a lengthy and costly endeavor. Patient advocacy is essential to cutting costs and pursuing quality care as soon as possible. Keep reading to learn more about support resources available to those seeking diagnosis!

Recent Discoveries

Research has proposed that the cause of ME/CFS is related to mitochondria, the organelle that supplies energy in a cell. Since the mitochondria itself does not appear to be mutated or faulty, it is speculated that this is likely not a disorder of the mitochondria, but rather something else inhibiting the organelle from fulfilling its function.

Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has remarked on the similarities between ME/CFS and Long COVID patients. 

Applying For Disability

There are individuals with CFS who are still able to hold a job, especially if their employer is able to accommodate them. However, there are many others who are unable to work at all and may need to look into disability benefits to help cover living expenses.

The disability application process can be frustrating and confusing, but it doesn’t have to be! Reviewing the process on the Social Security Administration (SSA) website before applying can help patients prepare thoroughly, from acquiring all of the needed documentation from their healthcare providers to gathering evidence of employment history.

Here is a quick rundown of what a patient may expect after applying:

  • Interviews and forms to help SSA determine the severity of CFS
  • Time-sensitive mail correspondence requesting additional documentation
  • Information requested from family members
  • Possible denial of benefits

It’s common to need to appeal a decision and the SSA offers several methods to do so. Many patients opt for legal representation for the appeals process, but it is not a requirement.

Treatment Options

Over the years, CFS treatment has evolved as more research has determined what is helpful and what can be harmful. For example, Graded Exercise Therapy was recommended as a way to slowly build up strength and energy, but has since been proven to worsen symptoms. Now treatment heavily focuses on improving quality of life, a primary function of occupational therapy.

Pacing is a popular technique in use today. Under the instruction of an occupational therapist or even through guided self-help, patients with CFS first explore and define their current limitations, then structure their day-to-day life within those constraints. Over time, patients who have a good sense of their abilities may be able to expand the scope of their activities by strategically balancing rest and monitoring their efforts through equipment such as a pedometer or pulse oximeter.

Advocating For Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

While there is still no cure for CFS, there are cases of patients recovering to a point where they can participate in activities of daily life again and even some instances where there is a near full recovery! By raising awareness for this condition, further research and resources can be allocated to the betterment of those affected.

In response to this severely underdiagnosed condition that affects potential millions, the CDC has created both a patient toolkit to help individuals advocate for themselves as well as a list of educational resources for the healthcare community.

For those who wish to get involved, there are several ways to raise awareness:

  • Wear blue on May 12th
  • Retweet CDC messages with the hashtag “#MECFSAwareness”
  • Attend virtual or local events
  • Share stories of ME/CFS with neighbors and friends

As the journey continues for ME/CFS, Raintree recognizes the need to raise awareness for those who struggle with rare or unnoticed conditions. So, please join us this month as we strive to make research opportunities and all types of therapy specialties more accessible for those affected by chronic fatigue syndrome.