Social Support, Hope May Help Relieve Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

September 29, 1998

Strong social relationships with family and friends may play a powerful role in helping patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) improve, researchers have found.

And just as important, they say, is having a doctor who recognizes and validates that they are ill, giving them hope for the future.

"Hopefulness about the future was associated with improved health status and appeared to be facilitated by relationships with others, be it one's spouse, one's physician, or close friends," says Barbara J. Saltzstein, MSW, of Harvard Medical School, who led a team that conducted two-hour interviews with 15 women who had CFS.

They asked open-ended questions about the beginning and history of their illness, their treatment, and the strategies they used to cope with it. Their findings are reported in the September issue of General Hospital Psychiatry (Vol. 20, No. 5).

In addition to social support and early diagnosis and validation, the research team said improvement in CFS status was associated with having low levels of depression symptoms and how the women perceived their illness, their future and their doctor's prognosis.

Almost all of the women engaged in some spiritual or group activity "where relationships with others are emphasized and where the focus is more on ... the promotion of hope and healing rather than on absolute cure," the researchers write.

Equally significant, they say, is that most of them were diagnosed relatively early and believed their physician was optimistic about their prognosis, two factors that the researchers found key to improvement. "Validation of patients" symptoms seems to be a crucial variable in the treatment of this condition," they write.

CFS, a controversial illness that causes severe debilitation, often goes undiagnosed. Its symptoms, muscle aches, fatigue, memory loss, and fever are frequently dismissed.

Also surprising, the researchers say, is that the women they interviewed did not fit previous descriptions of CFS patients described in research literature as "primarily depressed" and "personality-disordered" individuals who "opt out of the stress of balancing work and family by becoming ill."

"None of the women withdrew from their lives. Rather, they grieved what they could no longer do, and revised their lives as necessary," they say.

General Hospital Psychiatry is a peer-reviewed research journal published bimonthly by Elsevier Science. For information about the journal, contact the editor, Dr. Don Lipsitt, at (617) 499-5008.
Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health For information about the Center, contact Richard Hebert at (202) 387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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