Chronic fatigue syndrome (M.E.)

Much more serious than just wanting to sleep in all the time.

girl asleep on bed in a dress

Know that feeling of getting dressed to go out, then having to lie down?

What is chronic fatigue syndrome?

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) causes severe exhaustion that doesn’t go away, even if you sleep, and it can’t be explained by illness. It’s also known as M.E., which stands for myalgic encephalopathy.

It’s not certain what causes chronic fatigue, theories include viral infections, problems with the immune system, an imbalance of hormones or psychological causes.

The signs are numerous, and vary in intensity, but can combine to leave sufferers feeling wiped out for long periods (way beyond the common recovery time from a virus such as flu).

250,000 people in the UK are estimated to suffer from chronic fatigue syndromes such as M.E.

What are the symptoms of chronic fatigue?

The illness can include a range of symptoms, which often fluctuate from day to day. Here’s what to look out for:

  • Feeling tired most of the time
  • Pain in muscles and joints
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Short term memory problems
  • Loss of appetite
  • Irritable bowel
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches and nausea
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Depression, often associated with problems at school/college/work as a result of the illness


M.E. is now recognised as a medical condition, but it is difficult to prove that you definitely have it, and no sure-fire cure exists. Instead, medical practitioners focus on treating individual symptoms. See your GP in the first instance, and discuss some of these popular therapies:

  • Graded exercise: A slow, carefully planned and supervised programme to build up stamina has been very successful for many people. This is done in specialist centres, and there may be a long waiting list.
  • Stress reduction: Look at your lifestyle, and tackle any activities or issues that leave you feeling strung out.
  • Lifestyle modification: If possible, aim to strike a balance between work and rest.
  • Acupuncture: Many people swear that getting needled improves wellbeing.
  • Homeopathy: Works on the principle that stimulating an illness will strengthen the body’s power of recovery.
  • Counselling can help you get to grips with the root of depression. Ask your doctor to recommend a psychotherapist or self-help group. Cognitive behavioural therapy can also help.

Will chronic fatigue affect my studies?

Dealing with constant exhaustion can make studying, going to college and getting through university more difficult. Depending on how severe your chronic fatigue is, you might find it hard to get out of bed in the mornings and get to classes, or to do revision.

The best thing you can do is to pace yourself. Focus on looking after your health and getting the treatment above. When it comes to revision, start by doing a little, maybe just an hour a day, then build it up if you feel you can. Don’t rush into doing huge amounts of revision as you’ll just become even more exhausted.

Tell your personal tutor, a teacher or university counsellor about your chronic fatigue so they can help you get the right support and balance your work load.

Will chronic fatigue affect my social life?

If you’re suffering from exhaustion you might find it hard to be out and about with all of your friends. Like with studying, you need to make sure you pace your social life.

However, having chronic fatigue doesn’t mean you can’t make new friends or keep in touch with old ones. Luckily technology means you can stay social without exerting yourself too much:

  • Make friends online – using community boards or chat rooms to make friends can be done from your computer.
  • Call your friends – no body movement involved and you can have a catch-up.
  • Text your friends– If having a full on conversation feels too much for you send them a text asking how they are.
  • Invite your friends to you – If you’ve got the energy to see them but can’t cope with leaving your house, invite friends over to watch a film.
  • Go somewhere nearby – when you have the energy to go out, do something as near to where you live as you can to avoid exhausting yourself.

Photo of girl sleeping by volunteer photographer Rebecca Hancock

Next Steps

  • You can visit NHS Choices for more information. You can get quick advice when it's not an emergency on 111.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.


Updated on 29-Sep-2015