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Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Affects 1 in 50 Teens

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New research finds 1 in 50 16-year-olds suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Teens are faced today with a tremendous amount of stress, pressure and demands. This may be why parents believe it’s perfectly normal when their child is overly exhausted. But when does tiredness become a serious health problem?

New research published Monday in Pediatrics suggests chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) in teens is common. According to the researchers, as many as 1 in 50 16-year-olds are affected by CFS that lasts for more than six months. Researchers say that this finding probably applies proportionately to all teens.

The study is based on findings from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, conducted by the University of Bristol, U.K. The researchers looked at data on 5 ,756 participants who filled out self-reported questionnaires. Girls were nearly twice as likely to report symptoms of CFS. The researchers also found teens from poorer families were also more likely to report CFS. This last finding may surprise many, since historically CFS has often been viewed as a fake condition that only afflicts the privileged middle-class—in a 1990 story, Newsweek reported people calling it the “yuppie flu.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 million people in the country are diagnosed with CFS. There currently is no cure for CFS. Treatment for CFS includes drugs such as antidepressants and sleeping pills and psychological counseling. Some patients turn to complementary medicine, including acupuncture or massage. Many experts recommend lifestyle changes, such as eating a healthful diet and adhering to an exercise program or getting more sleep.

People with CFS, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), aren’t only chronically tired. Many report experiencing other symptoms such as dizziness, lightheadedness, depression, anxiety, muscle and joint pain, headaches, weakness and heightened sensitivity to pain. Some experts say symptoms that go beyond extreme fatigue are actually due to different overlapping conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic migraines, restless leg syndrome and irritable bowel syndrome. For example, researchers of this new study found 67 percent of teens reported symptoms that warranted a diagnosis of depression.

But it can take a while before any person with CFS receives a diagnosis, since many are turned away, misdiagnosed or told their symptoms are psychosomatic. Prior studies from the same group of researchers found that as much as 94 percent of teens with CFS said doctors discounted their need for medical attention.

“Awareness needs to be raised to ensure that families of children affected by CFS access specialist medical care, and that pediatricians and those looking after children are trained in the identification and management of CFS,” the researchers write in the study. “Further research is also needed to investigate the extent to which psychological problems and life difficulties pre-date or follow CFS.”

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