Sick and Tired: Tracking Paths to Chronic Fatigue

By Bower, B. | Science News, November 11, 2006 | Go to article overview

Sick and Tired: Tracking Paths to Chronic Fatigue


Bower, B., Science News


Stressful experiences and a genetic predisposition toward emotional turmoil contribute to some cases of chronic fatigue syndrome, two new studies indicate.

The investigations, published in the November Archives of General Psychiatry, add to growing evidence that several varieties of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) occur, each with distinct causes.

CFS affects roughly 800,000 people in the United States. It's characterized by disabling fatigue lasting 6 months or more and at least four of eight other symptoms: muscle pain, joint pain, memory or concentration loss, unusual fatigue after exercise, unrefreshing sleep, tender lymph nodes, headaches, and sore throat.

In the first of the new studies, psychologist Christine Heim of Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta and her coworkers found that adults with CFS report a greater number of traumatic circumstances in their childhoods than other adults do.

From a representative sample of Wichita, Kan., residents, the researchers identified 43 individuals with CFS and 60 others with no fatigue problems. Two-thirds of the CFS group reported childhood experiences of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse or emotional or physical neglect. Only one-third of the nonfatigued group reported such traumas.

CFS rates were highest for individuals who cited more than one type of childhood trauma and for those who endured especially severe ordeals, Heim's team says. Depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder also appeared frequently in participants with childhood traumas.

In some people, profound stress during childhood impairs the brain's responses to new challenges, the researchers propose. This process sets the stage for a number of ailments, including CFS, in their view.

The second new study, led by epidemiologist Nancy L. …

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