The evidence base for physiotherapy in myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome when considering post-exertional malaise: a systematic review and narrative synthesis

J Transl Med. 2021 Jan 4;19(1):1. doi: 10.1186/s12967-020-02683-4.


Background: Due to the inconsistent use of diagnostic criteria in myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), it is unsure whether physiotherapeutic management regarded effective in ME/CFS is appropriate for patients diagnosed with criteria that consider post-exertional malaise (PEM) as a hallmark feature.

Purpose: To appraise current evidence of the effects of physiotherapy on symptoms and functioning in ME/CFS patients in view of the significance of PEM in the applied diagnostic criteria for inclusion.

Methods: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials published over the last two decades was conducted. Studies evaluating physiotherapeutic interventions for adult ME/CFS patients were included. The diagnostic criteria sets were classified into three groups according to the extent to which the importance of PEM was emphasized: chronic fatigue (CF; PEM not mentioned as a criterion), CFS (PEM included as an optional or minor criterion) or ME (PEM is a required symptom). The main results of included studies were synthesized in relation to the classification of the applied diagnostic criteria. In addition, special attention was given to the tolerability of the interventions.

Results: Eighteen RCTs were included in the systematic review: three RCTs with CF patients, 14 RCTs with CFS patients and one RCT covering ME patients with PEM. Intervention effects, if any, seemed to disappear with more narrow case definitions, increasing objectivity of the outcome measures and longer follow-up.

Conclusion: Currently, there is no scientific evidence when it comes to effective physiotherapy for ME patients. Applying treatment that seems effective for CF or CFS patients may have adverse consequences for ME patients and should be avoided.

Keywords: Chronic fatigue syndrome; Intervention; Myalgic encephalomyelitis; Physiotherapy; Post-exertional malaise; Systematic review.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic* / therapy
  • Humans
  • Physical Therapy Modalities