Myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) is a long-term neurological disease. Usually, ME is triggered by an infection and is characterized by severe physical and cognitive impairment. Symptoms of ME can vary significantly from person to person and from illness to illness. There are several different types of ME, and it is important to know the symptoms of each.
Although there is no known cure for ME, there are treatments that can help manage the disease and reduce the amount of symptoms. Treatments often focus on pacing, a technique that breaks activity into small periods and leaves time to rest. Pacing also helps to avoid crashes and allows people with ME to match activity to energy levels.
People with ME typically suffer from post-exertional malaise, which is a pronounced increase in symptoms after physical or mental exertion. Symptoms of post-exertional malaise (PEM) can include muscle aches, pain, exhaustion, sluggishness, cognitive impairment, and a general reduction in functioning. PEM can last up to 24 hours.
Several viral and bacterial infections are known to trigger ME. Epstein-Barr virus, Ross River virus, glandular fever, and hepatitis A and B are some of the most common. Other diseases with similar symptoms must be excluded before a diagnosis of ME can be made. Approximately 10% of people with serious viral infections develop myalgic encephalomyelitis.
ME can affect anyone of any age, race, or socioeconomic group. Many people with the disease find it difficult to work, attend school, or live independently. Most adults with ME are unable to do their normal activities, and about one-quarter of patients are housebound on the worst days.
ME is a chronic condition that can present gradually over years, or it can present suddenly. In some cases, ME may be triggered by an infection, a hormonal shift, or a surgical procedure. While it is generally a disease of older individuals, it can also impact adolescents. However, the incidence of ME in children is less than in adults. Children with the disease tend to experience dizziness, trouble regulating temperature, and difficulty concentrating.
The exact cause of ME is unknown, but recent research has shown that inflammation of the brain may be a possible explanation. Research has also found that the immune system is altered in people with the disease. This makes it difficult for the body to recover after an infection. Medications can help, but there are no FDA-approved treatments for the disorder.
Depending on the stage of the disease, treatment may be effective and increase a person’s overall functioning. Patients are usually sensitive to medications, and many health care providers can provide assistance with accommodations. Some people with ME are also able to apply for disability.
Diagnosis of ME can take some time, but if you have symptoms of post-exertional malaise, a physical or cognitive impairment, and a substantial limitation in activity, you should be referred to a specialist team. Ideally, your team should have a medically trained clinician and other healthcare professionals with specialties in ME/CFS.