Unexplained Chronic Fatigue and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

“Every time I sit down, I fall asleep. It’s getting embarrassing.”

“I am just so tired. There are all of these things I need to get done, but I’m so exhausted by the end of the day, there’s no way.”

“In my 20s, I was a machine. Now (in my 40s), I need an afternoon nap everyday. Too bad I only get to take one on the weekends.”

These are some of the many complaints I hear from patients about being tired all of the time. Often, they have come to acupuncture for some other reason, but the daily fatigue they experience comes up for discussion during the initial consultation. I am not too surprised when patients mention fatigue or lack of energy, because this is a common problem and it represents one area in which the positive results of proper acupuncture treatment can be readily observed.

Fatigue that lasts more than six months, impairs normal activities, and has no identifiable medical or psychological problems to account for it is referred to as unexplained (or idiopathic) chronic fatigue (1). A person who has chronic fatigue does not automatically have the medically identified disorder of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), although the two are related. CFS is characterized by two specific criteria; namely, the one listed above and secondly, the concurrent presence of four or more of the following symptoms: substantial impairment of short-term memory or concentration, sore throat, tender lymph nodes, muscle pain, multi-joint pain without swelling or redness, headaches of a new type, pattern, or severity, unrefreshing sleep, and post-exertional malaise lasting more than 24 hours (2).

Unexplained chronic fatigue appears as a common effect of today’s fast-paced lifestyles. There are seemingly many factors involved in its manifestation, but the end result is the energy stores do become depleted to the extent that there is the perception of having barely any energy left to exert. That is where treatment comes into play. Even if a person with unexplained chronic fatigue or CFS can not recall days when they were ever high-energy types, the long-term fatigue sets in and often becomes worse over time. In a healthy state, many people contending with chronic fatigue are very active and lead busy, productive lives; however, they can exceed their natural limits in attempting to keep up with life’s demands and end up irritable when they are not able to achieve everything that they set out to do (3). In a clinical setting, these patients will show specific patterns upon examination of the pulse and abdomen in particular. Acupuncturists have a way of looking at this type of person from the perspective of traditional East Asian medicine, and a definite, gentle effective way of treating her (or him) as well. One caution is that once these patients start to feel better, they can have a tendency to start overdoing their activities, and it is thus a good idea for them to slowly take on more tasks as their energy improves to a state of surplus, not just a minimal increase (4). Further, patients should be encouraged to find ways that they can cut back on their external expenditures of energy while cultivating internal stores through such activities as qi gong or tai chi. Dietary changes also represent a big part of changing the fatigue picture. These patients should not feel guilty about taking more time for rejuvenation. The symptoms of unexplained chronic fatigue and CFS can be overcome with care, but often, some changes have to be made. Most patients find it’s worth it to have their energy back.

(1). “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.” University of Maryland Medical Center. http://www.umm.edu/patiented/articles/what_chronic_fatigue_syndrome_its_symptoms_000007_1.htm.
(2). “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – Basic Facts.” Centers for Disease Control. http://www.cdc.gov/cfs/cfsbasicfacts.htm.
(3-4). Obaidey, Edward. “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.” JAMSF Newsletter. 2002: Volume 2, Issue 1, p. 31.


Kerri Winston, Ph.D., L.Ac., is a licensed acupuncturist with a practice in Atlanta, Georgia's Buckhead area. If you are interested in learning more about how acupuncture can help you or your loved ones, please call 404-949-0550 or send email to [email protected].