Although myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) are considered to be synonymous, the definitional criteria for ME and CFS define two distinct, partially overlapping, clinical entities. ME, whether defined by the original criteria or by the recently proposed criteria, is not equivalent to CFS, let alone a severe variant of incapacitating chronic fatigue. Distinctive features of ME are: muscle weakness and easy muscle fatigability, cognitive impairment, circulatory deficits, a marked variability of the symptoms in presence and severity, but above all, post-exertional “malaise”: a (delayed) prolonged aggravation of symptoms after a minor exertion. In contrast, CFS is primarily defined by (unexplained) chronic fatigue, which should be accompanied by four out of a list of 8 symptoms, e.g., headaches.
Due to the subjective nature of several symptoms of ME and CFS, researchers and clinicians have questioned the physiological origin of these symptoms and qualified ME and CFS as functional somatic syndromes. However, various characteristic symptoms, e.g., post-exertional “malaise” and muscle weakness, can be assessed objectively using well-accepted methods, e.g., cardiopulmonary exercise tests and cognitive tests. The objective measures acquired by these methods should be used to accurately diagnose patients, to evaluate the severity and impact of the illness objectively and to assess the positive and negative effects of proposed therapies impartially.
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