Experiences of living with severe Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, by  Victoria Strassheim, Julia L Newton and Tracy Collins in Healthcare 2021, 9(2), 168 [doi.org/10.3390/healthcare9020168] (This article belongs to the Special Issue ME/CFS – the Severely and Very Severely Affected)


Research abstract:

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME) is a rare disease with no known etiology. It affects 0.4% of the population, 25% of which experience the severe and very severe categories; these are defined as being wheelchair-, house-, and bed-bound. Currently, the absence of biomarkers necessitates a diagnosis by exclusion, which can create stigma around the illness.

Very little research has been conducted with the partly defined severe and very severe categories of CFS/ME. This is in part because the significant health burdens experienced by these people create difficulties engaging in research and healthcare provision as it is currently delivered.

This qualitative study explores the experiences of five individuals living with CFS/ME in its most severe form through semi-structured interviews. A six-phase themed analysis was performed using interview transcripts, which included identifying, analysing, and reporting patterns amongst the interviews. Inductive analysis was performed, coding the data without trying to fit it into a pre-existing framework or pre-conception, allowing the personal experiences of the five individuals to be expressed freely.

Overarching themes of ‘Lived Experience’, ‘Challenges to daily life’, and ‘Management of the condition’ were identified. These themes highlight factors that place people at greater risk of experiencing the more severe presentation of CFS/ME. It is hoped that these insights will allow research and clinical communities to engage more effectively with the severely affected CFS/ME population.



This study is novel, as it has accessed this hard to reach population group and recorded their experience. Most of the participants had received some form of specialist CFS/ME support or had access to the healthcare services. However, their experiences ranged from accepting the limitations of the service to having a very negative view.

CFS/ME is a medically unexplained illness lying at the boundaries of understanding within the legacy biomedical model. An illness where there is no single, simple cause or theoretical model, no clear mind/body division, and no definitive classification [1] does not sit easily in the current healthcare system. The CFS/ME presentation conflicts with the current health and social care model [1,2]. The severe CFS/ME presentation sits outside the model and therefore is not acknowledged.

This illness ranks low within primary care, as it is not life threatening [23]. However, it is potentially life shortening [14]. There are certainly physical and mental health symptoms that are often disregarded or missed within the complex presentation [14], and reports suggest that 88 suicides have been partly attributed to CFS/ME between 2001 and 2016. However, it has been noted that it is not necessarily intrinsic factors that lead to suicide, but a combination of extrinsic factors, which include a lack of medical care and social support, failure to control key symptoms, and inadequate financial help. Depression is not always a feature in CFS/ME-related suicide [49].

…Currently, the healthcare system and research community are failing to provide resources and opportunities for this group to engage, and so enable the positive outcome of increased independence. Longer periods of intervention, home visits and telephone consultations and in extreme cases inpatient rehabilitation in specialist services are effective evidenced interventions in the research literature [10,16,44,53]. Such services would meet the needs of CFS/ME individuals much better than the status quo which often forces patients to meet the needs of the system in order to secure the care that they need.

A re-evaluation of the approach taken to CFS/ME and other unexplained illness is ever more urgent given the upcoming surge in numbers of long-haul COVID-19 individuals. A major symptom of such long-haul COVID-19 is fatigue [54,55]. Research and healthcare communities have much experience to share and further research to perform, particularly in the area of health, social care, and societal attitudes allowing vulnerable ill people to remain valued members of society.

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