Are there subgroups of chronic fatigue syndrome? An exploratory cluster analysis of biological markers

J Transl Med. 2021 Jan 30;19(1):48. doi: 10.1186/s12967-021-02713-9.


Background: Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is defined according to subjective symptoms only, and several conflicting case definition exist. Previous research has discovered certain biological alterations. The aim of the present study was to explore possible subgroups based on biological markers within a widely defined cohort of adolescent CFS patients and investigate to what extent eventual subgroups are associated with other variables.

Methods: The Norwegian Study of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in Adolescents: Pathophysiology and Intervention Trial (NorCAPITAL) has previously performed detailed investigation of immunological, autonomic, neuroendocrine, cognitive and sensory processing functions in an adolescent group of CFS patients recruited according to wide diagnostic criteria. In the present study, hierarchical cluster analyses (Ward's method) were performed using representative variables from all these domains. Associations between clusters and constitutional factors (including candidate genetic markers), diagnostic criteria, subjective symptoms and prognosis were explored by standard statistical methods.

Results: A total of 116 patients (26.7% males, mean age 15.4 years) were included. The final cluster analyses revealed six clusters labelled pain tolerant & good cognitions, restored HPA dynamics, orthostatic intolerance, low-grade inflammation, pain intolerant & poor cognitions, and high vagal (parasympathetic) activity, respectively. There was substantial overlap between clusters. The pain intolerant & poor cognitions-cluster was associated with low functional abilities and quality of life, and adherence to the Canada 2003 diagnostic criteria for CFS. No other statistically significant cluster associations were discovered.

Conclusion: Within a widely defined cohort of adolescent CFS patients, clusters could be delineated, but no distinct subgroups could be identified. Associations between clusters and constitutional factors, subjective symptoms and prognosis were scarce. These results question the clinical usefulness of searching for CFS subgroups, as well as the validity of the most "narrow" CFS diagnostic criteria.

Trial registration: Clinical Trials NCT01040429.

Keywords: Adolescent; Chronic fatigue syndrome; Cluster analysis; Diagnostic criteria.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Biomarkers
  • Canada
  • Cluster Analysis
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Norway
  • Quality of Life


  • Biomarkers

Associated data