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“Seabiscuit” Author Overcame Debilitating Effects of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

The new film "Seabiscuit" tells the inspiring, true story of a racehorse in the 1930s who beat the odds to become a winner. The movie is based on a book by author Laura Hillenbrand, who beat tremendous odds of her own.

For more than a decade, Hillenbrand suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or CFS, which often left her bedridden for months on end, sometimes too weak to write more than a few words a day. The condition affects up to half a million people in the U.S. There is no known cause of CFS, and there is currently no cure.

Veeraindar Goli, M.D., medical director of Pain Evaluation and Treatment Services at Duke University Medical Center, says Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has physiological and psychological symptoms that mimic other diseases, so diagnosis can sometimes take years.

"The majority of people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome suffer for four two five years before a diagnosis is confirmed," says Goli. "Only in 1994, when there was a major survey done, did the medical community come up with specific criteria to diagnose the condition."

Since many other diseases have incapacitating fatigue as a symptom, physicians must exclude other known and often treatable conditions before making a diagnosis of CFS.

"Physicians are very reluctant to come up with a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome unless they can eliminate everything else," explains Goli, "and it's a long process of elimination sometimes.

"The negative test results for other conditions are not necessarily bad," he adds. "It's good if all the tests are normal and you still have fatigue. At least we know you are healthy in these other aspects. Then we can treat the fatigue."

In order be diagnosed with CFS, a patient must meet two criteria: 1) have severe chronic fatigue for six months or more, with other medical conditions ruled out; and 2) have four or more symptoms related to impaired memory, muscle pain, insomnia, headaches, joint pain, sore throat or tender lymph nodes. These symptoms must have persisted for at least six months and must not have been present prior to the fatigue.

CFS patients respond to different treatments, says Goli, including medication, physical therapy, herbal medicines and relaxation therapy. "If something works for you, it doesn't necessarily mean it will work for the next person," he says. "There is no one single drug that will work for everybody. Since it's a chronic condition, a multi-disciplinary treatment is the best outcome. I also tell my patients that they themselves play a very important role in their treatment."

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