Chronic fatigue and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) have become increasingly recognized as a common clinical problem, yet one that physicians often find difficult to manage. In this review we suggest a practical, pragmatic, evidence-based approach to the assessment and initial management of the patient whose presentation suggests this diagnosis. The basic principles are simple and for each aspect of management we point out both potential pitfalls and strategies to overcome them. The first, and most important task is to develop mutual trust and collaboration. The second is to complete an adequate assessment, the aim of which is either to make a diagnosis of CFS or to identify an alternative cause for the patient's symptoms. The history is most important and should include a detailed account of the symptoms, the associated disability, the choice of coping strategies, and importantly, the patient's own understanding of his/her illness. The assessment of possible comorbid psychiatric disorders such as depression or anxiety is mandatory. When the physician is satisfied that no alternative physical or psychiatric disorder can be found to explain symptoms, we suggest that a firm and positive diagnosis of CFS be made. The treatment of CFS requires that the patient is given a positive explanation of the cause of his symptoms, emphasizing the distinction among factors that may have predisposed them to develop the illness (lifestyle, work stress, personality), triggered the illness (viral infection, life events) and perpetuated the illness (cerebral dysfunction, sleep disorder, depression, inconsistent activity, and misunderstanding of the illness and fear of making it worse). Interventions are then aimed to overcoming these illness-perpetuating factors. The role of antidepressants remains uncertain but may be tried on a pragmatic basis. Other medications should be avoided. The only treatment strategies of proven efficacy are cognitive behavioral ones. The most important starting point is to promote a consistent pattern of activity, rest, and sleep, followed by a gradual return to normal activity; ongoing review of any 'catastrophic' misinterpretation of symptoms and the problem solving of current life difficulties. We regard chronic fatigue syndrome as important not only because it represents potentially treatable disability and suffering but also because it provides an example for the positive management of medically unexplained illness in general.