Epidemiological and clinical factors associated with post-exertional malaise severity in patients with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome

J Transl Med. 2020 Jun 22;18(1):246. doi: 10.1186/s12967-020-02419-4.


Background: Post-exertional malaise (PEM), the cardinal feature of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), occurs generally after exposure to a stressor. It is characterized by the worsening of ME/CFS symptoms and results in aggravating the course of the disease and the quality of life of patients. Due to its unpredictable onset, severity, and recovery time, identifying patients with higher risk for severe PEM would allow preventing or reducing its occurrence. We thus aimed at defining possible factors that could be associated with PEM severity.

Methods: Adult patients fulfilling ME international consensus criteria who attended the internal medicine department of University hospital Angers-France between October 2011 and December 2019 were included retrospectively. All patients were systematically hospitalized for an etiological workup and overall assessment. We reviewed their medical records for data related to the assessment: epidemiological data, fatigue features, clinical manifestations, and ME/CFS precipitants. PEM severity was appreciated by the Center for Disease Control self-reported questionnaire. The study population was classified into quartiles according to PEM severity scores. Analyses were performed with ordinal logistic regression to compare quartile groups.

Results: 197 patients were included. PEM severity was found to be positively associated with age at disease onset ≥ 32 years (OR 1.8 [95% CI 1.1-3.0] (p = 0.03)), recurrent infections during the course of the disease (OR 2.1 [95% CI 1.2-3.7] (p = 0.009)), and when ME/CFS was elicited by a gastrointestinal infectious precipitant (OR 5.7 [1.7-19.3] (p = 0.006)).

Conclusion: We identified some epidemiological and clinical features, which were positively associated with PEM severity in subsets of ME/CFS patients. This could help improving disease management and patients' quality of life.

Keywords: Age; Infectious precipitants; Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome; Post-exertional malaise; Recurrent infections.