Is it exhaustion or chronic fatigue syndrome? How to tell the difference.

Every year, 1.5 million Australians visit their doctor because of fatigue. If asked, most people would probably describe fatigue in a similar way: tiredness or a lack of energy. In other words, exhausted.

It happens to most of us at some time, but can usually be overcome. In fact, you might be thinking I’m exhausted as you read this.

But what happens if exhaustion isn’t just exhaustion? What if it’s something more serious, like chronic fatigue syndrome? And how can you tell the difference?

Let’s look at a more detailed description of exhaustion vs. chronic fatigue syndrome, and how you might be able to tell one from the other.

What is exhaustion?

Exhaustion or fatigue is a temporary state of extreme tiredness that can usually be linked to a specific cause. You may feel exhaustion due to lack of sleep, an imbalance in physical activity (too much or too little), poor eating habits, medication, or other factors.

Exhaustion can also be an indication that there is an underlying medical condition present, such as diabetes, anemia, depression or cancer.

Exhaustion can have an effect on physical, emotional, and mental health. When people are suffering from exhaustion, they may find it hard to think clearly or make decisions. They may also struggle to manage their emotions or reactions.

Symptoms of exhaustion include:

  • Feeling tired
  • Feeling weak
  • Slow reflexes
  • Memory problems
  • Low concentration
  • Lack of motivation

Exhaustion has many different causes, but when there are no other conditions present, these causes can usually be identified.

What is chronic fatigue syndrome?

Chronic fatigue syndrome, or CFS, can be difficult to understand. Its causes are unknown and a diagnosis is usually based on a combination of symptoms, not a straightforward exam. An estimated 240,000 people in Australia are living with CFS.

CFS is characterised by extreme exhaustion that does not go away over time, despite rest. People with CFS may find it difficult to complete everyday tasks like having a shower or answering a phone call.

Exercise and physical activity can actually make CFS symptoms worsen, but on the flip side, resting does not improve symptoms. This can leave sufferers feeling helpless, especially when others encourage them to ‘snap out of it,’ as if the condition was not valid.

The condition can leave people unable to work, and can last for months or even years.

CFS is also known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, or ME. This indicates that the painful inflammatory condition affects the muscles, brain, and nerves.

Symptoms of ME/CFS include:

  • Excessive tiredness
  • Feeling unwell
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Aches and pains
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Inability to concentrate

Researchers from Queensland’s Griffith University recently made a breakthrough, finding that CFS/ME is a calcium ion channel impairment condition. A lack of calcium in the cells leads to improper bodily function.

These findings have provided hope to those living with CFS/ME, bringing the medical community closer to accurate diagnostic tests and effective treatments. There is much still to learn about the condition, but it is a valid illness that should not be ignored.

The difference between exhaustion and chronic fatigue syndrome

If you are experiencing signs of exhaustion or chronic fatigue, you should visit your doctor as early as possible. He or she can give you a medical opinion on your condition and recommend a treatment approach.

With that said, there are some key differences between exhaustion and chronic fatigue syndrome. While both leave you feeling extremely tired, exhaustion is temporary and CFS is not. If your symptoms last for more than six months, it could be a sign of CFS.

CFS and exhaustion differ in their causes as well. While you can usually pinpoint the cause of exhaustion – for example, you’ve been working more than usual or sleeping less – CFS can seem to come out of the blue, with no explanation.

In fact, CFS can often be confused with other illnesses, thanks to its often flu-like symptoms. This is what makes it hard to diagnose and hard to identify from the beginning. It can come on gradually over time, lasting much longer than a normal cold or flu.

Perhaps one of the most telling differences between exhaustion and chronic fatigue syndrome is how the body responds to rest. If you’re dealing with exhaustion that isn’t caused by an underlying medical condition, it will likely heal with adequate sleep and rest.

If you’re getting plenty of rest but the symptoms show no change, it could be a sign of chronic fatigue syndrome. This is also true for physical activity; in combination with enough rest, it may help relieve the symptoms of exhaustion, but can worsen those of CFS.

Although exhaustion and chronic fatigue syndrome can appear similar, they are two different conditions and should be treated as such. If you have any concerns about your health or are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, consult a medical professional.

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