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Study tracks causes, treatment of perplexing chronic fatigue syndrome

Neal, Jenkins
Kamilah Neal and her mother, Wilhelmina Jenkins, take a variety of pills to treat the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome  
September 22, 1998
Web posted at: 5:57 p.m. EDT (2157 GMT)

From CNN Medical Correspondent Dan Rutz

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Government researchers have made strides in finding tangible proof that chronic fatigue syndrome is real and in understanding how medications affect the ailment, according to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Physicist Wilhelmina Jenkins was sidelined on her way to a Ph.D. 13 years ago when chronic fatigue syndrome sapped her strength and mind. The dissertation she wrote then makes no sense to her today, and neither does the disease.

CNN's Dan Rutz reports on the results of the study
Windows Media 28K 56K

"All they could recommend to me was changing my lifestyle -- getting more rest," she said. "I tried every kind of change I could think of, and nothing helped; I just continued to go downhill."

Jenkins and daughter Kamilah Neal, who developed the same disorder seven years ago, swallow pills by the handful to relieve symptoms.

Now, researchers are looking at an experimental treatment that makes a slight difference in chronic fatigue syndrome.

"This is not the kind of improvement that I would wish for my patients, but it was a real and measurable improvement," said Dr. Stephen Straus of the National Institutes of Health.

In the study, government researchers gave patients low doses of the stress hormone hydrocortisone, known to be in short supply in many people with chronic fatigue. They hoped by supplementing the hormone, patients would feel more like normal.

"These hormones are important for patients' activity and their mood, their energy and responses to life stress in general," Straus said.

But not only was improvement in patients modest, it appears the treatment cuts the body's natural production of the stress hormone.

"We noticed too little improvement in my mind to justify the use of this treatment," Straus said.

The study does, however, help turn skeptics into believers by offering a measure of the disease. People with the disorder are often told they are imagining things when doctors can find nothing wrong with patients.

"It's really painful when people don't believe you when you're feeling this and living this," Neal said.

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