An examination of the working case definition of chronic fatigue syndrome

Am J Med. 1996 Jan;100(1):56-64. doi: 10.1016/s0002-9343(96)90012-1.


Purpose: Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) currently is defined by a working case definition developed under the leadership of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) based on a consensus among experienced clinicians. We analyzed the experience from one large center to examine the adequacy of the case definition.

Patients and methods: Predefined clinical and laboratory data were collected prospectively from 369 patients with debilitating fatigue, of whom 281 (76%) met the major criteria of the original CDC case definition for CFS: (1) fatigue of at least 6 months' duration, seriously interfering with the patient's life; and (2) without evidence of various organic or psychiatric illnesses that can produce chronic fatigue. The same clinical data were obtained from 311 healthy control subjects and two comparison groups with diseases that can present in a similar fashion; relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (n = 25) and major depression (n = 19).

Results: All of the minor criteria symptoms from the original CDC case definition distinguished patients with debilitating chronic fatigue from healthy control subjects, and many distinguished the patients with chronic fatigue from the comparison groups with multiple sclerosis and depression: myalgias, postexertional malaise, headaches, and a group of infectious-type symptoms (ie, chronic fever and chills, sore throat, swollen glands in the neck or underarm areas). In addition, two other symptoms not currently part of the case definition discriminated the chronic fatigue patients from the control/comparison groups: anorexia and nausea. Physical examination criteria only infrequently contributed to the diagnosis. Patients meeting the CDC major criteria for CFS also met the minor criteria in 91% of cases.

Conclusion: Patients meeting the major criteria of the current CDC working case definition of CFS reported symptoms that were clearly distinguishable from the experience of healthy control subjects and from disease comparison groups with multiple sclerosis and depression. Eliminating three symptoms (ie, muscle weakness, arthralgias, and sleep disturbance) and adding two others (ie, anorexia and nausea) would appear to strengthen the CDC case definition of CFS.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anorexia / diagnosis
  • Anorexia / physiopathology
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S.
  • Depressive Disorder / diagnosis
  • Depressive Disorder / physiopathology
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Fatigue / diagnosis
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / classification
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / diagnosis*
  • Fatigue Syndrome, Chronic / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Headache / diagnosis
  • Headache / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Infections / diagnosis
  • Infections / physiopathology
  • Male
  • Multiple Sclerosis / diagnosis
  • Multiple Sclerosis / physiopathology
  • Muscular Diseases / diagnosis
  • Muscular Diseases / physiopathology
  • Nausea / diagnosis
  • Nausea / physiopathology
  • Pain / diagnosis
  • Pain / physiopathology
  • Physical Exertion
  • Prospective Studies
  • Terminology as Topic
  • Time Factors
  • United States