Chronic Fatigue Patients Often Feel Disbelieved in ERs

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Patients suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) often feel disrespected and disbelieved in hospital emergency rooms, according to a new survey by researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center.

CFS is a complex and poorly understood disorder characterized by extreme fatigue, chronic pain, impaired memory and insomnia. Because many of the symptoms of CFS overlap with other conditions -- including fibromyalgia, depression, and inflammation – a correct diagnosis is often difficult.

In the first study of its kind, Georgetown researchers surveyed 282 CFS patients about their experiences in emergency departments. Two-thirds said they would not go to an ED because they believed they wouldn't be taken seriously or because they had a previous unsatisfactory experience. Only a third said they received appropriate treatment in the ED.

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"The high proportion of patients who were basically told 'It is all in your head' by ED staff indicates that there is much misunderstanding and misgivings about the diagnosis of CFS,” said allergist and immunologist James Baraniuk, MD, senior investigator of the study published in the journal Open Access Emergency Medicine.

“These patients should feel they are respected and that they can receive thorough care when they feel sick enough to go to an ED."

The survey found that only 59 percent of the CFS patients had gone to an ED. In that group, 42 percent were dismissed as having psychosomatic complaints. Asked to collectively rate their ED caregivers' knowledge of chronic fatigue, patients gave them a score of 3.6 on a 10-point scale.

Baraniuk says more training is needed for ED staff and physicians to better understand the disorder.

"An already-available CFS Symptom Severity Questionnaire can be used in the ED to assist with the diagnosis of CFS, and to differentiate exacerbations of CFS symptoms from medical emergencies such as heart attacks or infections," Baraniuk says.

The number one reason for going to the ED was orthostatic intolerance, which occurs when a person feels faint when standing or sitting upright because not enough blood is reaching the brain and heart. The symptoms only improve when a person lies down.

"This condition is something that can be readily addressed by ED caregivers. There is a real need for physician education that will improve their efficiency in identifying and treating CFS and in distinguishing CFS symptoms from other diseases in the exam room," he said.

In 2015, an independent panel convened by the National Institutes of Health called for major changes in the way the healthcare system treats people suffering from chronic fatigue – which is also known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS).

“Both society and the medical profession have contributed to ME/CFS patients feeling disrespected and rejected. They are often treated with skepticism, uncertainty, and apprehension and labeled as deconditioned or having a primary psychological disorder,” the panel reported in its final report.

About one million Americans suffer from chronic fatigue, most of them women. There are no pathogens linked to CFS, no diagnostic tests and no known cures.

Are Chronic Fatigue Sufferers Afraid of Exercise?

By Pat Anson, Editor

Research published in a respected British medical journal is fueling a new debate over exercise and whether it helps or hurts people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome.

Researchers at King’s College London reported in The Lancet Psychiatry that most chronic fatigue sufferers have “fear avoidance beliefs” that exercise will only make things worse.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) -- also known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) –  is characterized by severe tiredness, disturbed sleep and a weakened immune system, along with muscle and joint pain. CFS is a comorbid condition often shared by fibromyalgia and other chronic pain sufferers.

The King’s College study followed 641 CFS patients who were given cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and graded exercise therapy that included light exercises such as walking. CBT encourages patients to think differently about their symptoms.

When used together, researchers say the two therapies helped about a third of the patients recover from CFS, primarily by reducing their fear that exercise and activity would only worsen their symptoms.

Our results suggest that fearful beliefs can be changed by directly challenging such beliefs (as in CBT) or by simple behaviour change with a graded approach to the avoided activity,” said Professor Trudie Chalder of King’s College London. “Clinically, the results suggest that therapists delivering CBT could encourage more physical activities such as walking, which might enhance the effect of CBT and could be more acceptable to patients.”

Many CFS sufferers were outraged by the study and the way it was reported by the news media, feeling it added to a stereotype that they were lazy couch potatoes and malingerers.

“This article has made me so angry. This journalist should live my life for a few days and then maybe they’d reconsider what they wrote,” said one woman in an online comment to a Daily Mail story.

“Sometimes having a shower is like climbing a mountain,” wrote another CFS sufferer. “Until one of these ‘experts’ has had to literally crawl back to bed shaking and ill from just trying to clean their teeth I don’t think they’ll ever be able to understand what we go through.”

“Given the number of athletes and sportspeople diagnosed with this neurological disease, trying to pass it off as 'fear of exercise' is laughable. And lazy!” wrote another reader.

An American neuroscientist also weighed in, disputing the theory that exercise is an effective treatment for ME/CFS.

Our studies clearly show that dynamic exercise like walking or jogging exacerbates symptoms associated with ME/CFS,” wrote Mark VanNess, PhD, a professor at the University of the Pacific in a letter published in the ME blog, Just ME. “Fear and avoidance of what worsens symptoms is a natural defense mechanism against a harmful stimulus. In fact, many researchers here in the U.S. utilize graded aerobic exercise as a tool to worsen and amplify ME/CFS symptoms – not as a treatment meant to be beneficial.

“For a patient with ME/CFS the fear of exercise is a reasonable, knowledgeable, and learned response to a noxious stimulus. If ME/CFS patients could exercise away their symptoms they most certainly would, regardless of the pain.”

Some skeptics in the medical community refuse to accept ME/CFS as a real disease, although it was classified as a neurological disease by the World Health Organization in 1969.

According to the National Alliance for Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, nearly 1 million people in the U.S. and 17 million worldwide have ME.