Aim: To perform a systematic review of studies describing the prognosis of chronic fatigue (CF) and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and to identify occupational outcomes from such studies.
Method: A literature search was used to identify all studies describing the clinical follow-up of patients following a diagnosis of CF or CFS. The prognosis is described in terms of the proportion of individuals improved during the period of follow-up. Return to work, other medical illnesses and death as outcomes are also considered, as are variables which may influence prognosis.
Results: Twenty-eight articles met the inclusion criteria and, for the 14 studies of subjects meeting operational criteria for CFS, the median full recovery rate was 5% (range 0-31%) and the median proportion of patients who improved during follow-up was 39.5% (range 8-63%). Less fatigue severity at baseline, a sense of control over symptoms and not attributing illness to a physical cause were all associated with a good outcome. Return to work at follow-up ranged from 8 to 30% in the three studies that considered this outcome.
Conclusions: Full recovery from untreated CFS is rare. The prognosis for an improvement in symptoms is less gloomy. This review looks at the course of CF/CFS without systematic intervention. However, there is increasing evidence for the effectiveness of cognitive behavioural and graded exercise therapies. Medical retirement should be postponed until a trial of such treatment has been given.