Case studies

Chronic fatigue syndrome and TCM


| May/June 2002



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I knew I wouldn’t be taken seriously when I went in to the doctor after the news media began calling my ailment the ‘yuppie flu,’” Betty said during her first clinic visit. This deliberate woman had been dealing with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) for nearly ten years. She had been to see all manner of physicians and many other health practitioners—she’d tried chiropractic treatments, acupuncture and herbs, reiki, and a number of fairly heavy medical treatments, including several rounds of antiviral drugs. Some offered temporary results, but the results hadn’t lasted, and Betty found it difficult to get out of bed before noon.

When I asked her to talk about specific symptoms she had experienced with the ailment, she spoke as if reading from a list: “severe fatigue, memory problems, a feeling of spaciness or otherworldliness, persistent muscle aches, depression and sleeping problems.” She had obviously explained her symptoms numerous times. She managed a smile after about the twentieth symptom. “Sounds great, doesn’t it?” I felt sympathetic because I experienced about four to six months of similar symptoms years ago, when I was just beginning to shift my career from electronics to herbalism and natural health. It’s a feeling as if you will never get better, because you simply don’t have enough energy and enthusiasm to overcome such bad feelings.

Defining CFS

CFS, also called chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome, is defined as a debilitating and complex disorder characterized by profound fatigue, pain, and cognitive problems not improved by bed rest and that may be worsened by physical or mental activity. The syndrome can affect people from all walks of life and nearly any age. Those with CFS function at a substantially lower level of activity than they were capable of before the onset of the illness. CFS is often closely associated with two other syndromes: fibromyalgia and orthostatic intolerance. No sure cause has been identified.

CFS is a most complex disorder, and at first researchers and medical practitioners did not take people seriously who described the numerous symptoms, especially persistent, debilitating fatigue. Many theories exist to explain the origins of CFS. Among them are a genetic predisposition for immune suppression due to the plethora of new synthetic chemicals and modern stressors in our lives today, then infection from opportunistic viruses such as Epstein-barr or cytomegalovirus, perhaps; or a metabolic disorder related to a commonly observable orthostatic hypotension among chronic fatigue patients, a feeling of faintness when one stands up too suddenly. An ongoing study is following 150 twins, where one of the pair has CFS, to check for genetic predisposition.

One problem with CFS is the lack of medical tests to make a clear diagnosis. The common symptoms of persistent fatigue and muscle aches (and possibly hypotension) may be the clearest signs. In fact, the diagnosis of CFS is often made only when all other causes, such as diabetes, have been ruled out. Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have physicians look for four or more of the following symptoms (that have persisted for more than six months) to make the diagnosis: impaired memory or concentration, sore throat, tender cervical or axial lymph nodes, muscle pain, multijoint pain, new headaches, unrefreshing sleep, and postexertion fatigue lasting more than twenty-four hours.

The TCM approach

Betty had done her homework and knew quite a lot about CFS, no doubt more than I did. She came to my clinic because she was interested in my approach, which is to blend an understanding of Western medicine with concepts from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and the use of Western and local herbs. TCM practitioners look closely and clearly at the individual and their imbalances through the experience of thousands of medical practitioners refined over thousands of years, rather than focusing broadly on a disease that medical science knows little about.





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