BACKGROUND: Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a chronic incapacitating illness that affects between 400,000 and 800,000 Americans. Despite the disabling nature of this illness, scant research has addressed the economic impact of CFS either on those affected or on the national economy. METHODS: We used microsimulation methods to analyze data from a surveillance study of CFS in Wichita, Kansas, and derive estimates of productivity losses due to CFS. RESULTS: We estimated a 37% decline in household productivity and a 54% reduction in labor force productivity among people with CFS. The annual total value of lost productivity in the United States was $9.1 billion, which represents about $20,000 per person with CFS or approximately one-half of the household and labor force productivity of the average person with this syndrome. CONCLUSION: Lost productivity due to CFS was substantial both on an individual basis and relative to national estimates for other major illnesses. CFS resulted in a national productivity loss comparable to such losses from diseases of the digestive, immune and nervous systems, and from skin disorders. The extent of the burden indicates that continued research to determine the cause and potential therapies for CFS could provide substantial benefit both for individual patients and for the nation.