Acupuncture and its Role in Helping to Treat Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

December 12, 2019

Over 200,000 Australians suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and its debilitating effects can significantly impact a person’s quality of life. CFS is a complex medical condition that presents with symptoms such as extreme fatigue, sleep problems, and pain. A person with CFS often feel tired and drained even with sufficient sleep. The fatigue is not relieved by extended rest and can be exacerbated even with low levels of physical or mental activity. CFS can hinder one’s usual daily activities, even previously simple tasks can become difficult, sometimes it can be hard just to get out of bed.

While there is no simple cure for CFS, the symptoms can be managed by self-care, conventional medicine and treatments such as cognitive training and graded exercise therapy. But due to the unsatisfactory results that some patients experience, people with CFS are seeking alternative treatments such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and acupuncture in helping with symptoms of CFS, as part of a more holistic approach.

Symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

The main symptom of chronic fatigue syndrome is fatigue for over six months. People with CFS report feelings of persistent and overwhelming exhaustion or fatigue. They feel physically and mentally fatigued and their condition does not improve with sleep or rest. They are not refreshed after waking from sufficient sleep but feel just as tired as when they retired to bed.

Other common symptoms of CFS may include:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Muscle or joint pain, malaise
  • Confusion, lack of concentration, memory decline
  • Inability to exercise or unusual tiredness after exercise
  • Headaches, sore throat
  • Anxiety, depression
  • Sensitivity to pain

Fatigue might be the only symptoms in CFS for some, while others will have a broad range of different symptoms. Some people experience mild symptoms and are able to manage the day while others experience severe symptoms that significantly impact their daily lives. Currently, no specific laboratory tests are used to diagnose CFS. Your doctor will diagnose CFS based on your clinical symptoms and how long you’ve been experiencing them. They may also conduct other tests to rule out other possible causes.

Causes of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

The exact cause of chronic fatigue syndrome is still unknown. There are several possible factors or a combination of several factors that may contribute to the condition such as:

  • Immunological and endocrine abnormalities
  • Abnormal pain processing
  • Autonomic nervous system dysfunction
  • Certain infectious diseases

Other factors that may contribute to CFS include hormonal imbalances, stress, abnormalities in energy production, and genetic factors, though there is no firm evidence that these factors cause CFS.

Treatment of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

There is no cure for chronic fatigue syndrome, however, self care and treatments are available to relieve symptoms, increase levels of activity and improve quality of life. Your doctor may recommend you to a number of healthcare providers to help manage your symptoms and make lifestyle changes. Conventional treatments and self care for CFS include:

  • Medications such as antidepressants to address depression, sleeping pills to improve night time sleep
  • Low intensity graded exercise – trying different types of gentle exercise such as stretching, yoga, tai chi, and walking to see what suits you
  • Pacing yourself, keeping within your activity limits is important to ensure you don’t overexert yourself and exacerbate symptoms
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy
  • Reducing stress levels as much as possible
  • Setting a regular time to go to bed
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and anything else that could impair your sleep

Other complementary treatment methods such as remedial massage, meditation, relaxation therapy, and acupuncture can also help relieve symptoms of CFS. The goal is to improve your physical and mental condition, and increase energy levels and relaxation.

How Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine can Help Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a natural treatment system, used in China for thousands of years to restore and maintain good health. Its benefits are now widely recognised around the world, and in recent decades starting to play a more significant role in Australian healthcare. TCM takes a holistic approach to wellness and considers illness a result of an internal imbalance of the body. Its diagnosis and treatments aim to achieve optimal health by restoring the internal balance within the body. The exact pattern and degree of imbalance is unique to each individual. TCM practitioners need to identify the precise nature of the underlying disharmony and prescribe the most effective treatment.

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According to TCM theory, there is an energy flow called Qi throughout the body in channels called meridians. If these channels are blocked and the flow of Qi is disrupted, it could lead to disease. One of the most popular components of TCM is acupuncture which inserts thin, sterile needles into different acupuncture points in the body to remove blockages and restore energy flow, thus promoting overall health and wellness. There is an increasing amount of Western scientific research demonstrating the effectiveness of acupuncture in a wide range of conditions.

The main treatment modalities of TCM used in chronic fatigue syndrome are acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, supported by dietary and lifestyle advice. In TCM theory, CFS is caused by long term imbalance of the Yin and Yang, and the body’s Qi, along with liver stagnation and damp heat. The principle of TCM treatment for CFS is to simultaneously treat both the symptoms and cause, through invigorating the spleen and nourishing the kidney, expelling damp heat, releasing stagnation and restoring the flow of Qi through the meridians. By balancing the Qi, Yin and Yang, acupuncture and Chinese medicine can help alleviate symptoms of this complex disease such as joint or muscle pain, fatigue, and sleep disturbances.

While there is no conclusive scientific evidence yet on the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating CFS, there are research findings that show positive effects of using acupuncture and Chinese medicine in managing CFS symptoms. Although more extensive research is required to determine the full effects of TCM in CFS, patients who undergo the treatment report relief from their symptoms. Some studies show that acupuncture and Chinese medicine may help to relieve some of the common symptoms of CFS by:

  • Stimulation of nerves in muscles and other tissues, leading to the release of endorphins and other neurohumoral factors, and changes in pain pathways
  • Reducing inflammation by encouraging the release of immunomodulatory and vascular factors
  • Improving local microcirculation to relieve muscle stiffness and promote joint mobility
  • Increasing melatonin secretion to improve sleep

However, for chronic fatigue syndrome as a whole there is a need for more, and higher quality, research.

How we can help

At Baolin Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Centre, we use a combination of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine to help manage CFS. Acupuncture is used to release stagnation and restore unobstructed flow in the meridians. Chinese herbal medicines (herbal formula and/or raw herbs) are used to expel heat, remove dampness and clear the liver for symptoms relief. Our treatment is customised for each individual patient. During each consultation, your condition will be discussed in detail and your herbal medicine prescription adjusted if necessary according to your response. In addition to acupuncture and herbal therapy, our practitioners also give self care recommendations for exercises, dietary and lifestyle changes. For example, self-massaging specific acupuncture points and tapping meridian pathways can help improve blood circulation. For more information regarding acupuncture and Chinese medicine for managing your CFS symptoms please contact us at our Perth or Subiaco clinic (Perth: 9228 8828; Subiaco: 9380 4171). Alternatively, you can send us your queries through our online contact page.