What is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in Children?

A young boy

Children should be a bundle of energy – constantly in motion, always looking for something to get into or a new passion to pursue. What should you do if your child isn’t exhibiting the same level of energy and enthusiasm that you are seeing in other kids their age? While it could be a passing malady, it may be something called chronic fatigue syndrome. Also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), this long-lasting fatigue wasn’t recognized as a real illness until relatively recently. With more than 1 million adult Americans suffering from this condition, it’s important to note that children can also fall prey to the overwhelming lethargy and weakness that are the hallmarks of chronic fatigue syndrome. How can you tell if your child is suffering from this disease that has no proven treatments or cures?

What is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?

Feelings of being tired and run down are not unusual when your child is nursing a cold or flu, experiencing random growing pains or teething. However, when these symptoms last for an extended period of time, there’s a possibility that they are experiencing chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). When it was first named in the 1980s, many physicians believed that CFS was a psychological ailment. Today’s healthcare professionals are more open to the idea that it is an inflammatory neurological condition that affects a small percentage of adults – and an even smaller percentage of children.

The overwhelming fatigue culminates in difficulty getting out of bed and performing standard daily activities. While a temporary sickness will pass, CFS tends to linger for weeks or even months of time and affects everything from home life to school activities and leisure time as well. All races and ethnic groups are all susceptible, but females are more likely than males to be diagnosed with CFS. While juvenile CFS can occur in children younger than 12, it is more often found in adults between the ages of 20 to 40.

Symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

While all ages exhibit signs of fatigue, children are more likely to have the additional symptoms of rash and stomach aches, sleep disturbance, cognitive disabilities and headaches. A decline in academic performance and inability to follow even a basic daily routine are often considered harbingers of CFS in children and youth. Other symptoms that are found in children include:

  • Dreams that are more intense or vivid than usual
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Irritability, due to their inability to describe the problems they are experiencing

Adults may experience muscle and joint pain, symptoms that are possible but unlikely to occur in children. The illness itself is difficult to diagnose, as the symptoms can come and go over a period of time.

Diagnosing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in Children

Physicians often require that children experience the symptoms for more than six months before potentially diagnosing them with CFS. The illness often occurs after a serious illness such as the flu, or it can begin more gradually with symptoms developing and worsening over time. Doctors require this passing of time to allow for blood and urine screens to rule out other diagnoses. They will also review any recent severe illnesses that could contribute to the symptoms that the child is experiencing, as well as complete a thorough mental status and physical examination.

Some questions your doctor may ask include whether:

  • Your child has been falling, feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Symptoms abate after a long nap or good night’s rest
  • Your child is able to perform normal activities, or if they are experiencing problems sleeping
  • Some specific activity brings comfort or makes your child feel better

Since the disease is so difficult to diagnose, parents may decide that keeping a journal offers the best way to share their notes with physicians. There are other conditions that could be diagnosed by a rheumatologist or neurologist that could mimic these symptoms, so your doctor may refer your child to this type of specialist to see if any treatments could provide improvement.

If you feel that your child is experiencing some of the signs and symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome, it’s important that you have them checked out as soon as possible. In the meantime, you can help your child by providing healthy stress outlets such as physical activities and artistic outlets. Healthy meals and light exercise can also help minimize symptoms and sufferers should avoid stimulants such as caffeine or excessive sugar. When you are ready to learn more about the potential impact of chronic fatigue syndrome on your child as well as how to help them through this challenge, visit Caring4OurKids.org for resources and more information. You can also learn how to advocate for your child who is suffering chronic pain on our blog.

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