You constantly feel tired, it’s hard to concentrate and your brain feels foggy. Chronic fatigue syndrome is tricky to diagnose and sometimes people who deal with it aren’t taken seriously.
New research out of Stanford University suggests that the condition is real, though. Scientists who looked at brain imaging say that there are distinct differences between patients with CFS and their healthy counterparts.
The findings are shedding light on the syndrome and could lead to a clearer diagnosis of the condition.
“Chronic fatigue syndrome is one of the greatest scientific and medical challenges of our time,” Dr. Jose Montoya, the study’s senior author and infectious disease professor, said in a statement.
The symptoms often include not only overwhelmingly fatigue but also joint and muscle pain, incapacitating headaches, food intolerance, sore throat and even hypersensitivity to light, noise or other sensations.
It’s hard to track how prevalent the condition is because it’s hard to diagnose the disease. While a “crushing, unremitting fatigue” that lingers for longer than six months is the shared symptom, issues vary from patient to patient.
Even then, patients deal with stigma because they’re seen as lazy, or imagining their ailment. In other cases, their disease is mistaken for something else.
Montoya has been following 200 CFS patients for years in an attempt to understand what the disease’s underlying mechanisms are. He suggests that patients deal with CFS for months, years and even decades.
“If you don’t understand the disease, you’re throwing darts blindfolded,” according to Dr. Michael Zeineh, the study’s lead author.
“We asked ourselves whether brain imaging could turn up something concrete that differs between CFS patients’ and healthy people’s brains. And interestingly, it did.”
It was a small study but it garnered fascinating findings that the researchers are hoping to duplicate.
Fourteen CFS patients were looked at alongside 14 age and sex-matched healthy volunteers who have no history of fatigue or CFS-related symptoms.
MRI results showed that CFS patients had reduced white matter content and they also had a “consistent abnormality” in a bundle of nerve fibres in a particular part of the right side of the brain.
Zeineh anticipated the disparity in white matter – it’s already known that inflammation takes a toll on white matter. But the irregularity in the nerve tract was unexpected. Turns out, the more patients’ nerve tract veered from the healthy group, the worse their fatigue was.
It’s too early to say what these findings mean, but the researchers hope it brings them closer to uncovering what’s at play.
“The study was a start. It shows us where to look,” Zeineh said.
The scientists are already planning a substantially larger study. The team’s findings were published Wednesday in the journal Radiology.