Diagnosing Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS)


What is myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome?

Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) is a medical condition defined by persistent, severe fatigue that lasts for months or years. ME/CFS is often difficult to diagnose. There is no cure for the condition, but treatment can improve quality of life.

Diagnosing myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome

Currently, no specific test is available to diagnose myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome. Diagnosis is typically based on symptoms. Also, since the symptoms of ME/CFS are similar to those of numerous other health conditions, the diagnostic process includes ruling out the possibility of other conditions. Specific blood tests are currently being developed and studied to aid in the diagnosis of ME/CFS.

Diagnostic criteria based on symptoms

The diagnostic criteria for ME/CFS typically requires that an individual experiences fatigue that exhibits the following qualities:

  • Severe enough to interfere with daily activities
  • Not present before the onset of the illness
  • Not alleviated by rest or sleep
  • Worsened by physical or mental activity

At least one of these two symptoms is also typically required for diagnosis:

  • Cognitive difficulties, such as problems with concentration or memory
  • Dizziness or weakness while sitting up or standing

An ME/CFS diagnosis also requires that fatigue and other symptoms are present for at least six months and occur at least 50% of the time.

Ruling out other conditions

As stated previously, the diagnostic process involves eliminating the possibility of other health conditions with similar symptoms. Blood tests may be ordered to rule out other health conditions such as anemia, vitamin deficiencies, diabetes, or thyroid problems. Mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, also need to be eliminated as potential causes of persistent fatigue. A sleep study may also be ordered to rule out sleep apnea, insomnia, or restless legs syndrome. Tests may also be conducted to check liver, kidney, and heart function.

Potential new blood tests

New blood tests that could help in the diagnosis of ME/CFS are currently in the research and development stage. These tests involve a technique called a nanoelectronics assay. This technique measures the electrical responses of cells in the body. When cells of a healthy individual are exposed to stress, electrical activity slightly increases and then returns to normal. In individuals with ME/CFS, the cellular response to stress is more extreme.

These tests could also be used to help develop medications to help treat ME/CFS. If a medication can improve cellular response to stress, it may help treat symptoms of ME/CFS. However, more research is needed before these tests can be used for diagnosis or treatment.

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