There are currently no investigative tools or physical signs that can confirm or refute the presence of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). As a result, clinicians must decide how long to keep looking for alternative explanations for fatigue before settling on a diagnosis of CFS. Too little investigation risks serious or easily treatable causes of fatigue being overlooked, whilst too many increases the risk of iatrogenic harm and reduces the opportunity for early focused treatment. A paper by Jones et al published this month in BMC Medicine may help clinicians in deciding how to undertake such investigations. Their results suggest that if clinicians look for common psychiatric and medical conditions in those complaining of prolonged fatigue, the rate of detection will be higher than previously estimated. The most common co-morbid condition identified was depression, suggesting a simple mental state examination remains the most productive single investigation in any new person presenting with unexplained fatigue. Currently, most diagnostic criteria advice CFS should not be diagnosed when an active medical or psychiatric condition which may explain the fatigue is identified. We discuss a number of recent prospective studies that have provided valuable insights into the aetiology of chronic fatigue and describe a model for understanding chronic fatigue which may be equally relevant regardless of whether or not an apparent medical cause for fatigue can be identified. See the associated research paper by Jones et al: http://www.biomedcentral.com/1741-7015/7/57.