March 5, 2011
By LEONARD A. JASON
In 1990, after a bout with mononucleosis, I contracted chronic fatigue syndrome. For month after month, I felt as if I had the worst case of the flu, and I had little stamina to do even the most basic life activities. I had to leave my work as a psychology professor for a year and a half.
I was lucky to have a strong support system and an understanding work setting—something many other patients don’t have—but I discovered just how mysterious and frustrating the illness is. I also realized how easy it is for people to confuse the experience of everyday tiredness with the incapacitating illness known as CFS.
See Chart on CFS here
Fatigue-related illnesses have periodically appeared over the past 150 years. Some have mistakenly compared CFS to what was called neurasthenia in the late 1800s—a condition that was thought to be caused by reading newspapers and, in the case of women, by education. But by the early 1900s, many physicians had concluded that neurasthenia was probably due to psychiatric conditions, and it was eventually discredited.
Clustered outbreaks of another fatiguing illness attracted attention in 1934 at the Los Angeles County Hospital, and then at a British hospital in 1955. Both outbreaks involved the hospitals’ medical staffs. Some physicians believed both outbreaks might have been a version of polio. The exact cause still remains unknown.
In the late 1950s, Dr. Melvin Ramsay in the U.K. began using the term myalgic encephalomyelitis to describe an illness marked by muscle fatiguability after minimal exertion and symptoms involving the central nervous system, such as impaired memory and concentration. Patients often experience a sudden onset, and proponents believed there was a medical cause.