I’m on the verge of tearing my hair out, and I suspect I’m not the only one. The American Academy of Family Physicians published a review article about CFS (paywall) on Monday, accompanied by a patient information sheet. From the very first sentence, this information sheet is a disaster. It packages harmful misinformation for family doctors to share with patients. Let’s take a look:
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a disorder that causes you to be very tired.
NO! No it does not! A person with sleep apnea is tired. A nursing mother is tired. A perfectly healthy person studying for the bar exam is tired (ask me how I know). CFS does not make me tired. CFS causes prostration, a medical term that means a collapse from complete physical or mental exhaustion. Using the word “tired” is not only medically inaccurate, it falsely minimizes the severity of my disease and my experience.
People with CFS may have other symptoms, such as poor sleep, trouble with remembering things, pain, sore throat, tender lymph nodes, or headaches.
Can you spot what’s missing? Post-exertional malaise! The generally accepted hallmark symptom of this disease is not on the list. It is the first symptom on the Fukuda criteria list of accompanying symptoms. But it’s not listed here and not explained to the patient.
Not everyone with CFS has all of these symptoms.
I know hundreds of CFS patients. Every single one of us has experienced these symptoms for extended periods of time, if not daily, over the course of years. While it is technically correct that the Fukuda criteria do not require all of those symptoms, it is an oversimplification to simply say we don’t have all the symptoms. And of course all the other symptoms and overlapping conditions are not mentioned at all.
Childhood trauma (for example, physical or sexual abuse) may raise the risk of getting it.
I am aware of two studies that showed a higher prevalence of childhood trauma among CFS cases compared to healthy controls (this one and this one). Here’s the problem: childhood trauma may raise the risk of many disorders later in life. Without comparing the prevalence rate of trauma among other illness groups, there is no way to know if the association with CFS is unique. Are there studies comparing the incidence of childhood trauma among people who develop multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, hepatitis, heart disease or . . . oh, that’s right. Doing that kind of study in those illnesses might be offensive because those illnesses are real. But we can do those studies in CFS with no problem.
Two treatments can help with CFS: cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and graded exercise therapy. With CBT, a therapist teaches you about how your thinking affects how you feel and act. With graded exercise therapy, you slowly increase your physical activity, which hopefully increases your function.
You know where this is going, right? Setting aside the arguments about whether CBT and GET studies actually show a benefit, and setting aside how this sort of statement plays right into the mental illness meme, let’s talk about GET. Will GET increase CFS patients’ functional ability? Maybe some patients, but it should be pursued with extreme caution and prejudice. As the work of the Pacific Fatigue Lab and my own exercise testing results show, the energy metabolism systems of CFS patients are severely impaired. We do not make or use energy, or recover from activity, the way other people (including other illness groups) do. Graded exercise must be undertaken very carefully because it takes very little activity to push a patient into a severe crash.
I shudder to think about how family doctors will use this information sheet, and what it will do to the patients who receive it. What is truly remarkable about it is that it bears only a passing resemblance to the full review article and the AAFP’s patient education page on CFS. But this watered down, oversimplified summary of misinformation about CFS will undoubtedly be used, and it is likely to make things worse for patients, not better.
So does anyone – journalists, doctors, policymakers, or other observers – wonder why the CFS Advisory Committee and patient advocates have been begging CDC to fully revise its website and remove the harmful content that filtered into this information sheet?
This is why.
Does anyone wonder why the CFSAC recommended that the CDC remove its Toolkit from the CDC website?
This is why.
Does anyone wonder why an alliance of organizations and patients wrote a lengthy and heavily referenced position paper in support of that recommendation?
This is why.
Does anyone wonder why there was such vigorous disagreement at the CFSAC meeting about whether professional societies like the AAFP should be invited to participate in revising the CFS case definition?
THIS. IS. WHY.
Update November 2, 2012: Author Toni Bernhard published a great article about the AAFP patient information sheet.
Update October 31, 2012: I’ve also published a detailed analysis of the AAFP review article on CFS.