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Chronic fatigue syndrome is all in your head — but not the way you think

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

New study finds brain anomalies associated with chronic fatigue syndrome

Imagine being bone tired all the time, no matter how much rest you get, having muscle pain and even losing chunks of memory — and then being told it's all in your head.

Sufferers of chronic fatigue syndrome, an illness hallmarked by being eternally exhausted despite adequate sleep, often say the worst part of their sickness is that no one believes they really have it, including their doctors. Ever since CFS was identified in 1987, it has always been a dicey diagnosis, mainly because it's only given after ruling everything else out.

A syndrome is a collection of symptoms with no known cause as opposed to a disease, which usually has a more specific cause and effect. And, while people with many syndromes struggle with all the unknowns, it can be particularly difficult for people with CFS as they're often accused by both loved ones and medical professionals of making it up, being hypochondriacs or even just being lazy.

But, a new study backs up patients, saying CFS is legit. It turns out that CFS is all in your head — specifically your brain anatomy.

Researchers at Stanford University studied the brain scans of 15 people with CFS and compared those to brain scans of people who were a similar age and type. They discovered that people with CFS had less white matter in their brains — the substance responsible for allowing the two hemispheres of the brain to communicate — and a higher rate of abnormalities in a certain section of the right hemisphere.

"These differences correlated with their fatigue — the more abnormal the tract, the worse the fatigue," said study author Dr. Michael Zeineh in a statement. "Most CFS patients at some point in time have been accused of being hypochondriacs and their symptoms dismissed by others. And there is still skepticism in the medical community about the diagnosis," he explained, adding that this is why their research is so important.

While the researchers say they still don't know exactly what it means in terms of treatment, they hope that it will lead to future developments in helping sufferers and that they will be heartened by the fact that someone is finally listening.

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