New Recommendations Address ME/CFS Diagnosis and Management

Miriam E. Tucker

August 25, 2021

New consensus recommendations address diagnosis and management of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), with advice that may also be helpful for patients with lingering symptoms following acute COVID-19 infection.

The document was published online Aug. 25, 2021, in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings by the 23-member US ME/CFS Clinician Coalition, headed by Lucinda Bateman, MD, of the Bateman Horne Center of Excellence, Salt Lake City. The document is the culmination of work that began with a summit held at the center in March 2018.

The target audience is both generalist and specialist healthcare providers. While ME/CFS is estimated to affect up to 2.5 million Americans, more than 90% are either undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other conditions such as depression. And those who are diagnosed often receive inappropriate, outdated treatments such as psychotherapy and exercise prescriptions.

"Despite myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome affecting millions of people worldwide, many clinicians lack the knowledge to appropriately diagnose or manage ME/CFS. Unfortunately, clinical guidance has been scarce, obsolete, or potentially harmful," Bateman and colleagues wrote.

The urgency of appropriate recognition and management of ME/CFS has increased as growing numbers of people are exhibiting signs and symptoms of ME/CFS following acute COVID-19 infection. This isn't surprising because the illness has long been linked to other infections, including Epstein-Barr virus, the authors noted.

The document covers the epidemiology, impact, and prognosis of ME/CFS, as well as etiology and pathophysiology. "Scientific studies demonstrate multiple dysfunctional organ systems, including neuro, immune, and metabolic, in ME/CFS. These findings are not explained merely by deconditioning," document coauthor Lily Chu, MD, an independent consultant in Burlingame, Calif., said in an interview.

The document reviews the 2015 US Institute of Medicine (now Academy of Medicine) diagnostic criteria that are now also recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are based on four main symptoms: substantial reduction or impairment in the ability to engage in preillness levels of occupational, educational, social or personal activities for longer than 6 months; postexertional malaise, a worsening of all current symptoms, that patients often describe as a "crash"; unrefreshing sleep; and cognitive impairment and/or orthostatic intolerance.

"The new diagnostic criteria focusing on the key symptom of postexertional malaise rather than chronic fatigue, which is common in many conditions, may make the diagnostic process quicker and more accurate. Diagnosis now is both an inclusionary and not just exclusionary process, so it's not necessary to eliminate all causes of fatigue. Diagnose patients who fit the criteria and be alert for it in people with persistent symptoms post COVID," Chu said.

The document provides advice for taking a clinical history to obtain the information necessary for making the diagnosis, including use of laboratory testing to rule out other conditions. Physical exams, while they may not reveal specific abnormalities, may help in identifying comorbidities and ruling out alternative diagnoses.

A long list of nonpharmacologic and pharmacologic treatment and management approaches is offered for each of the individual core and common ME/CFS symptoms, including postexertional malaise, orthostatic intolerance, sleep issues, cognitive dysfunction and fatigue, immune dysfunction, pain, and gastrointestinal issues.

The document recommends against using the "outdated standard of care" cognitive-behavioral therapy and graded exercise therapy as primary treatments for the illness. Instead, the authors recommend teaching patients "pacing," an individualized approach to energy conservation aimed at minimizing the frequency, duration, and severity of postexertional malaise.

Clinicians are also advised to assess patients' daily living needs and provide support, including acquiring handicap placards, work or school accommodations, and disability benefits.

"There are things clinicians can do now to help patients even without a disease-modifying treatment. These are actions they are already familiar with and carry out for people with other chronic diseases, which often have limited treatment options as well. Don't underestimate the importance and value of supportive care for patients." Chu said.

The recommendations are based primarily on clinical expertise because there are very few randomized trials, and much of the evidence from other types of trials has been flawed, document coauthor Anthony L. Komaroff, MD, of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, both in Boston, said in an interview.

"The sad reality is there aren't very many large randomized clinical trials with this illness and so what a group of very experienced clinicians did was to gather their collective experience and report it as that. It's largely uncontrolled experience, but from people who have seen a lot of patients, for what it's worth to the medical community."

Komaroff also advised that clinicians watch out for ME/CFS in patients with long COVID. "If we find that those called long COVID meet ME/CFS criteria, the reason for knowing that is that there are already some treatments that according to experienced clinicians are helpful for ME/CFS, and it would be perfectly appropriate to try some of them in long COVID, particularly the ones that have minimal adverse reactions."

The guidelines project was supported by the Open Medicine Foundation. Komaroff reported receiving personal fees from Serimmune outside the submitted work. Chu has no disclosures.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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