Chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as systemic exertion intolerance disease, is a challenging condition for many patients, their families, and the doctors who care for them. The illness is difficult to diagnose since not all symptoms will appear in every patient. Some do experience feeling chronically fatigued yet may not have chronic fatigue syndrome.
Most patients with chronic fatigue syndrome have a sudden onset of fatigue that may occur soon after an infection, such as a cold, pneumonia, or mononucleosis. Patients with chronic fatigue syndrome usually experience overwhelming fatigue that may interfere with sleep and the ability to think and concentrate. Symptoms tend to get worse after periods of heavy physical activity, but may also occur after simply rising from a seated position or standing for a long period. Importantly, most patients with chronic fatigue syndrome began life with few or no symptoms. Many were previously high functioning in their daily lives who are now impacted by the symptoms they experience.
Just as chronic fatigue syndrome is difficult to diagnose, it is also difficult to treat. Not every treatment will work for every patient. In fact, there is no widely accepted, specific treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome. Treatment is mostly supportive and aimed at reducing symptoms. While many medications have been tried such as antidepressants, steroids, stimulants, vitamin B12, essential fatty acids (and many others), no drug treatment has been consistently successful at helping people with chronic fatigue syndrome.
A recent report by Akarsu and colleagues may offer some hope for people with chronic fatigue syndrome. Sixteen patients with confirmed chronic fatigue syndrome received 15 sessions of hyperbaric oxygen therapy over a period of three weeks. Each treatment was for 90 minutes in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. Participants in the study agreed to stop all physical therapy or medication for chronic fatigue syndrome so that those treatments would not interfere with the results of the study.
The research group found that chronic fatigue syndrome patients tolerated hyperbaric oxygen therapy very well, and had no complications. In all measures tested, patients were significantly better after treatment than they were before hyperbaric oxygen therapy started. Specifically, patients had better scores on two clinical tests of fatigue (visual analog fatigue scale and the Fatigue Severity Scale) and in a quality of life assessment (Fatigue Quality of Life Score). The improvement in scores was not subtle—in each test, there was a clinically significant increase in the average score. The results showed that hyperbaric oxygen therapy significantly and substantially reduced fatigue and improved quality of life in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome/systemic exertion intolerance disease. These results are incredibly encouraging since they indicate hyperbaric oxygen therapy may be an effective treatment for those battling chronic fatigue syndrome.