Thursday 24 January 2019

"Fatigue, fluctuation and payback were described by all adolescents with CFS/ME in this study"

The quote titling this post - "Fatigue, fluctuation and payback were described by all adolescents with CFS/ME in this study" - comes from the findings reported by Roxanne Parslow and colleagues [1] during their study designed "to explore outcomes important in paediatric chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalopathy (CFS/ME) and what improvements in fatigue and disability are key."

Indeed, this latest study seems to follow a theme of looking at the personal experiences of CFS/ME [2] by members of this authorship team, potentially onward to the development of a PROM (Patient Reported Outcome Measure) [3] specifically with children and adolescents in mind. If this was a goal, I wondered if perhaps this *could* also be linked to some other work from some of the Parslow paper authors that has also been previously discussed on this blog too (see here)?

I specifically wanted to talk about this paper because of the word 'payback' and it's particular use to mean an "increase in fatigue and symptoms following activity." Mentioning it only twice in their article (one of those occasions being the use of a reference), I think the authors mean post-exertional malaise (PEM) (see here and see here for more discussion of this concept). They however, seemed a little reluctant to use that term. In answering one of the reviewers of their paper prior to acceptance for publication, the authors did say: "Payback is defined as a core symptom in NHS guidance, and is used in the clinical setting." They also clarified how "the term ‘payback’ was used instead of exhaustion."

No mind, based on interviews with "21 adolescents and their parents (20 mothers and 2 fathers)", most adolescents being female with a mean age of around 14 years, several key themes emerged. To reiterate: "All adolescents with CFS/ME report fatigue, a natural fluctuation of the condition, as well as an increase in fatigue and symptoms after activity (payback)." Several sub-themes also emerged from such reporting including how: "Adolescents and parents reflected on how CFS/ME naturally fluctuates" and "Adolescents and parents recognised patterns of good and bad days" and "Adolescents were limited in the amount of time they could spend on activities, which ranged from minutes, ‘5 min’ to hours, ‘an hour at the most’." These aren't exactly novel findings by any means but it's always useful to see them described in the peer-reviewed research domain.

Heading back to that 'payback' issue, researchers mention how their results are "consistent with previous research where children described the intensity of symptoms fluctuating as well as ‘overextension’ making it worse, resulting in ‘paying the price’." Accepting that such payback or PEM or 'payback exhaustion resulting in fatigue and other symptoms following activity' if you prefer, is widely present in CFS/ME (albeit individual and 'variable' in nature), one might see the Parslow results perhaps as further justification for being slightly critical of the use of something like graded exercise therapy (GET) in relation to CFS/ME (see here). GET relies on the assumption that increasing or grading in physical activity will eventually 'help' facets of CFS/ME. Unfortunately, whilst still expounded in some circles, there is accumulating (peer-reviewed) evidence that many patients with CFS/ME experience GET as more of a hindrance rather than a help for their symptoms (see here). Indeed, allied to terms like 'deconditioning' as part of suite of 'psychobabble' that seems to have enveloped CFS/ME down the years, the idea that CFS/ME is something that can be just 'exercised out of' seems to have been a truly damaging policy that has not seemingly served many patients particularly well.

The Parslow findings are revealing and add something further to the idea that an overhaul of current thinking on CFS/ME in children and adults is perhaps required (see here). Obviously the results are small-scale and require some follow-up, but listening to patients and their parents/caregivers and their collected experiences is a good idea in my book; particularly when it comes to a group of conditions like CFS/ME that have seen more than their fair share of 'assumptions' down the years.


[1] Parslow RM. et al. Adolescent’s descriptions of fatigue, fluctuation and payback in chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalopathy (CFS/ME): interviews with adolescents and parents. BMJ Paediatr Open. 2018;2(1):e000281.

[2] Parslow RM. et al. Children's experiences of chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME): a systematic review and meta-ethnography of qualitative studies. BMJ Open. 2017 Jan 13;7(1):e012633.

[3] Parslow RM. et al. Important factors to consider when treating children with chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME): perspectives of health professionals from specialist services. BMC Pediatr. 2017 Feb 1;17(1):43.


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