ME/CFS: Millions of Americans have chronic fatigue syndrome, CDC says

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
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Millions of people in the United States are living with chronic fatigue syndrome, according to a new CDC survey. Ian Pratt/Stocksy
  • 1.3% of Americans say their physicians have told them that they have chronic fatigue syndrome, according to a new CDC survey.
  • The report shows that chronic fatigue affects most segments of the U.S. population.
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome is characterized by six months or more of a sense of physical exhaustion.
  • Health officials say long COVID cases may contribute to the recent rise in people with chronic fatigue syndrome, but the connection is unclear.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the results of a survey in which Americans report receiving a diagnosis of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS).

According to the survey, over 1.3% of Americans say their doctor told them they have chronic fatigue syndrome. Based on the current U.S. population of 333 million, 1.3% of that figure equals about 4.3 million Americans.

The CDC’s previous estimate for Americans with CFS/ME was 836,000 to 2.5 million people.

The CDC also reports that about 90% of people with the condition have not been diagnosed.

According to the agency, CFS/ME costs the United States economy approximately $17 to $24 billion annually in medical bills and lost income.

CFS and ME are two different terms for the same condition. “ME” gained popularity among physicians in the United Kingdom, while “CFS” was first used in the U.S. “CFS/ME” is the current term applied to chronic fatigue syndrome in the U.S.

The survey questioned 57,133 American adults in 2021–2022. People in the survey were asked if they had received a definitive diagnosis of CFS/ME or if they recalled having been told they had the condition by their physicians.

CFS/ME is generally described as being characterized by at least six months of profound tiredness.

The rise in CFS/ME cases may be partially attributed to long COVID, a general term for the lingering effects of an acute COVID-19 infection.

A 2023 review found that CFS/ME and long COVID-triggered chronic fatigue are similar, though some differences exist. One international survey found that 86.7% of respondents who had not recovered from long COVID reported chronic fatigue.

Dr. David Cutler, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, described the precise parameters of CFS/ME as somewhat vague. Dr. Cutler wasn’t involved in the survey.

“While the existence of chronic fatigue syndrome, or what is more accurately termed chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis, is clear,” he said, “the actual definition of this condition is a little more confusing.”

Dr. Cutler added there are “multiple definitions” for chronic fatigue syndrome.

“This variation in definition is quite common when a medical condition is a ‘syndrome’ and not a disease. Diseases have a known, identifiable, generally recognized cause. Syndromes may have multiple, unknown, and/or poorly defined causes. This uncertainty about diagnosis leads many to believe the condition is under-diagnosed, while others may feel it is over-diagnosed.”

— Dr. David Cutler, family medicine physician

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