No medications are specifically approved to treat CFS. However, some may be useful for pain or other symptoms, or in cases where CFS may have a specific cause. Doctors generally use combinations of drugs to accomplish specific goals, such as medication at night to improve sleep and medication in the morning to improve cognition and energy. Treatment is very individualized.
Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs). Patients with CFS may find relief using NSAIDs -- common pain relievers that reduce pain and swelling. Types of NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil, Nuprin), and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn, Naprelan, Anaprox).
Although NSAIDs work well, long-term use can cause stomach problems, such as ulcers and bleeding. In April 2005, the FDA asked NSAID manufacturers to include a warning label on their products that alerts users of an increased risk for cardiovascular events and gastrointestinal bleeding. Due to its proven cardiovascular benefits, aspirin was excluded from these labeling revisions.
NSAIDs can also increase blood pressure, particularly among people already being treated for hypertension. (About 12 - 15% of elderly people take both an NSAID and an antihypertensive drug.) Piroxicam, naproxen, and indomethacin appear to pose the greatest risk of high blood pressure. Sulindac has the smallest effect.
Other side effects of NSAIDs include:
NSAIDs can cause kidney damage. (The damage gets better once the patient stops using the drug.) People with high blood pressure, severe circulation disorders, or kidney or liver problems, as well as people taking diuretics or oral hypoglycemics, must be closely monitored if they need to use NSAIDs on a long-term basis. Because NSAIDs reduce blood clotting, NSAID users who are scheduled for surgery should stop taking those drugs a week before the operation.
COX-2 Inhibitors (Coxibs). Coxibs block an inflammation-promoting enzyme called COX-2. This class of drugs was initially believed to work as well as traditional NSAIDs, but with fewer stomach problems. However, numerous reports of cardiovascular events, skin rashes, and other adverse effects prompted the FDA to re-evaluate the risks and benefits of the COX-2 drugs. Rofecoxib (Vioxx) and valdecoxib (Bextra) were withdrawn from the U.S. market following reports of heart attacks in patients taking the drugs. Celecoxib (Celebrex) was still available at the time of this report, but labeled with strong warnings and a recommendation that it be prescribed at the lowest possible dose for the shortest duration possible. Patients should ask their doctor whether the drug is appropriate and safe for them.
Because of the association between depression and CFS, antidepressants are often tried, with varying degrees of success. Common side effects of many antidepressants include:
Virtually all antidepressants have complicated interactions with other drugs, and some of these interactions are very serious.
Tricyclic Antidepressants. Antidepressants known as tricyclics may be particularly helpful for CFS patients. For example, the tricyclic amitriptyline (Elavil) is known to relieve many of the symptoms of CFS, including sleeplessness and low energy levels. These drugs may provide benefits by promoting deep sleep and inhibiting pain pathways in the nervous system. Improvement in symptoms can take 3 - 4 weeks. Other tricyclics include doxepin (Sinequan), desipramine (Norpramin), nortriptyline (Pamelor), clomipramine (Anafranil), and imipramine (Tofranil, Janimine). Patients with CFS normally respond to much lower doses than those used to treat people with depression. In fact, many CFS patients cannot tolerate the higher doses commonly used to treat depression. As with all medications, tricyclics must be taken as directed. An overdose can be life-threatening. Tricyclics should not be taken together with SSRIs, because of the possibility of dangerous side effects.
Other Antidepressants. Newer, so-called designer SSRIs, including bupropion (Wellbutrin), nefazodone (Serzone), or mirtazapine (Remeron), affect combinations of different neurotransmitters, and some may have moderate benefits for CFS patients. For example, in one study, nefazodone improved mood, fatigue, and sleep disturbances.
SSRIs. The popular antidepressants known as selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be helpful for the subgroup of CFS patients who experience significant depression. These drugs include fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), and paroxetine (Paxil). Cymbalta (duloxetine) is a new antidepressant that is classified as a selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SSNRI).
Psychostimulants. Psychostimulants may be helpful for a subgroup of patients with CFS who have cognitive problems, such as difficulty concentrating, memory problems, and other attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)-like characteristics. Psychostimulants include Dexamphetamine, Adderall, methylphenidate (Ritalin) and Ritalin-like drugs such as Focalin, Concerta, Ritalin LA, and Metadate, as well as Strattera and Provigil. The NICE guidelines for CFS do not advise taking Dexamphetamine or Ritalin. However, a 2007 study found that taking two 10 mg doses of Ritalin each day works much better than placebo at relieving fatigue and concentration problems. More research is needed to study the long-term effects of Ritalin on CFS patients.
Because of the difficulties in treating chronic fatigue syndrome, many patients seek alternative therapies. Some of these therapies, such as acupuncture, yoga, and relaxation techniques, may be helpful and are not dangerous. No scientific evidence exists that vitamin and mineral supplements will relieve CFS, but some people do report that they find supplements helpful.
Herbal and Dietary Supplements. Popular herbal and dietary supplements for CFS include coenzyme Q10, vitamin B12, vitamin C, magnesium, multivitamins, DHEA, ginseng, and acetylcarnitine. None have been rigorously tested. Some herbs, such as St. John's wort, ginkgo, and comfrey, may cause serious side effects and drug interactions.
Herbal remedies and dietary supplements are not regulated by the FDA. This means that manufacturers and distributors do not need FDA approval to sell their products. In addition, any substance that can affect the body's chemistry can, like any drug, produce side effects that may be harmful. There have been a number of reported cases of serious and even lethal side effects from herbal products.
Some so-called natural remedies have been found to contain standard prescription medication. Of specific concern are studies suggesting that up to 30% of herbal remedies imported from China have been laced with potent pharmaceuticals, such as phenacetin and steroids. Most reported problems occur in herbal remedies imported from Asia. One study reported that a significant percentage of such remedies contain toxic metals.
CFS patients should be wary of the following remedies:
Other alternative remedies with no proven benefit and possible toxic and dangerous side effects include:
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