TREATMENT: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
CBT and graded exercise therapy (GET) have been found to be the only beneficial interventions in CFS. Some patient groups argue against these approaches because of the implication that CFS is a purely mental disorder. CBT is a psychotherapeutic approach directed at changing unhealthy disease-perpetuating patterns of thoughts and behaviors. It includes educating the patient about the etiologic model, setting goals, restoring fixed bedtimes and wake-up times, challenging and changing fatigue- and activity-related concerns, reducing a focus on symptoms, spreading activities evenly throughout the day, gradually increasing physical activity, planning a return to work, and resuming other activities. The intervention, which typically consists of 12–14 sessions spread over 6 months, helps CFS patients gain control over their symptoms.
GET targets deconditioning and exercise intolerance and usually involves a home exercise program that continues for 3–5 months. Walking or cycling is systematically increased, with set goals for maximal heart rates. Evidence that deconditioning is the basis for symptoms in CFS is lacking, however. CBT and GET appear to improve fatigue primarily by changing the patient’s perception of the fatigue and also by reducing the focus on symptoms. In general, CBT is the more multifaceted treatment, which may explain why CBT studies tend to yield better improvement rates than GET trials.
Not all patients benefit from CBT or GET. Predictors of poor outcome are medical (including psychiatric) comorbidities, current disability claims, and severe pain. CBT offered in an early stage of the illness reduces the burden of CFS for the patient as well as for society in terms of decreased medical and disability-related costs.