Post-exertional malaise among people with long COVID compared to myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS)

Work. 2023;74(4):1179-1186. doi: 10.3233/WOR-220581.


Background: Long COVID describes a condition with symptoms that linger for months to years following acute COVID-19. Many of these Long COVID symptoms are like those experienced by patients with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS).

Objective: We wanted to determine if people with Long COVID experienced post-exertional malaise (PEM), the hallmark symptom of ME/CFS, and if so, how it compared to PEM experienced by patients with ME/CFS.

Methods: A questionnaire that asked about the domains of PEM including triggers, experience, recovery, and prevention was administered to 80 people seeking care for Long COVID at Bateman Horne Center. Their responses were compared to responses about PEM given by 151 patients with ME/CFS using chi-square tests of independence.

Results: All but one Long COVID respondent reported having PEM. There were many significant differences in the types of PEM triggers, symptoms experienced during PEM, and ways to recover and prevent PEM between Long COVID and ME/CFS. Similarities between Long COVID and ME/CFS included low and medium physical and cognitive exertion to trigger PEM, symptoms of fatigue, pain, immune reaction, neurologic, orthostatic intolerance, and gastrointestinal symptoms during PEM, rest to recover from PEM, and pacing to prevent PEM.

Conclusion: People with Long COVID experience PEM. There were significant differences in PEM experienced by people with Long COVID compared to patients with ME/CFS. This may be due to the newness of Long COVID, not knowing what exertional intolerance is or how to manage it.

Keywords: Post-acute COVID-19 syndrome; exertional intolerance; fatigue; long haul COVID; post-viral fatigue syndrome.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic* / psychology
  • Humans
  • Post-Acute COVID-19 Syndrome
  • Surveys and Questionnaires