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Chronic fatigue syndrome may be linked to unexplained school absence

13 December 2011

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Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) may account for one out of a hundred unknown school absences in England, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal Open.

Researchers looked at almost 3,000 children, aged 11 to 16, from three schools in the south-west of England. Those children who had 20 percent or more time off school over a six-week term were assessed to see if they had CFS.

The researchers found that 28 of the children had CFS, 23 of which were new diagnoses. The children were offered treatments including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and graded exercise therapy. Four children didn't complete the treatments, but of the remaining 19 children, 12 made a full recovery and were attending school full-time by six months.

The researchers suggest that clinics set up in schools to diagnose and treat CFS could improve school attendance and improve children’s overall health and wellbeing.

Dr Ryan Mehta, Project Clinical Director, Bupa Health and Wellbeing UK, commented: “This study highlights the importance of being aware of children’s general health, including CFS, for parents, teachers and GPs.

“It’s important to note that only three schools were looked at in this study, all of which were in the south-west of England. We therefore can’t generalise these results to other areas and to those children from different socio-economic backgrounds.

“However, the initial findings showed that treatment had a positive effect on the children, which directly resulted in less time off school. This shows that with the right support, conditions such as CFS in children can be successfully managed and treated.

“Common symptoms of CFS to look out for can include extreme tiredness that doesn’t improve after rest and flu-like symptoms, such as painful glands, joints and muscles. It can also affect memory and sleep. If you’re concerned about your child and have noticed any of these symptoms, see your GP for help and advice.”

The children included in the research were given a full assessment at the start of the study to rule out other causes of fatigue. The children were followed up after six weeks and six months using surveys and questionnaires to assess tiredness, pain, physical function, anxiety and depression.

Key facts

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), is a condition that causes extreme physical and mental tiredness that may interfere with a person’s quality of life.
  • The causes of CFS aren’t fully known at present. It can sometimes occur after an infection, but many people who get it were previously fit and active.
  • CFS is difficult to diagnose and there are no specific tests for this condition. Your GP may want to do blood tests to rule out other conditions that may have similar symptoms, such as hypothyroidism.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a talking treatment that is sometimes used to treat CFS, as well as other conditions such as anxiety and depression. It helps to challenge negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
  • Graded exercise is a form of therapy that aims to improve symptoms of CFS by building up exercise gradually and working towards a goal over time.

How can we help you?

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Read the study

Crawley EM, Emond AM, Sterne JAC. Unidentified chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME) is a major cause of school absence: surveillance outcomes from school-based clinics. BMJ Open 2011. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2011-000252

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