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Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Not Just an Adult Condition

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in Children and Teens

Children are known for their bounds of energy, but some kids experience symptoms such as severe and debilitating fatigue, painful muscles and joints, disordered sleep, sore throats, swollen glands, and poor memory and concentration. British researchers have found that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ Myalgic Encephalopathy (CFS/ME) may be responsible for many missed school days among children.

Overall, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a condition that most commonly affects women aged 30 to 50, but it can begin at any age including teens and children younger than 12. About one million people in the US have CFS and tens of millions more have a CFS-like condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some researchers suspect that CFS may be caused by a virus or inflammation of the nervous system, or that factors such as a prior illness, stress, environment or genetics may be involved.

A team of researchers from the University of Bristol examined data on 2,855 children between the ages of 11 and 16 at three secondary schools in the southwest of England where specialist CFS/ME services are well established. The study focused on kids who had missed over 20% of schooling over a 6-week period but excluded those who had missed because of a diagnosed health condition other than CFS and for those who were known to be truanting.

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Of the 461 children who had missed one-fifth of the schooling period, 28 were ultimately diagnosed with CFS/ME, demonstrating that about 1% of school children in the cohort suffered from the condition. The children with CFS/ME had likely had the symptoms for an average of slightly longer than 18 months.

Dr Esther Crawley, lead author and Consultant Senior Lecturer at the University’s School of Social and Community Medicine, said: “These findings reveal the scale of how many children are affected by disabling chronic fatigue that prevents them attending school, and how few are diagnosed and offered help.”

The team did find that those children whose schools were more likely to recognize symptoms and get referrals to clinics sooner suffered less fatigue and other symptoms and displayed less disability. The kids also made more rapid progress to recovery.

"This project suggests that undiagnosed chronic fatigue syndrome/ME may be an important and under-appreciated cause of school absence in children aged 11-16 years," conclude the researchers. Dr. Crawley added “School-based surveillance for fatigue could be of potential benefit given that reduced school attendance is associated with worse educational attainment and may increase the risk of unemployment.”

The study, entitled ‘Unidentified Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS/ME) is a major cause of school absence: school based surveillance study’ by Dr Esther Crawley, Professor Alan Emond and Professor Jonathan Sterne from the University of Bristol School of Social and Community Medicine, was published in the journal BMJ Open.