Chronic fatigue syndrome: a qualitative investigation of patients' beliefs about the illness.
Clements A., Sharpe M., Simkin S., Borrill J., Hawton K.
The chronic fatigue syndrome is a disabling chronic condition of uncertain cause. Previous studies have found that patients seen in hospital clinics with the syndrome often strongly believe that their illness is physical in nature and minimize the role of psychological and social factors. There is also evidence that patients cope by avoiding activity. However, almost all of these studies have assessed illness beliefs only by questionnaire. The aim of this study was to explore the nature and origin of illness beliefs in more detail using in-depth interviews and a qualitative analysis of patient responses. Sixty-six consecutive referrals meeting Oxford criteria for chronic fatigue syndrome were recruited. Analysis of responses indicated that, whereas the most commonly described explanation for the illness was a physical one, more than half the patients also believed "stress" had played a role. Patients believed that they could partially control the symptoms by reducing activity but felt helpless to influence the physical disease process and hence the course of the illness. Patients reported that they had arrived at these beliefs about the illness after prolonged reflection on their own experience combined with the reading of media reports, self help books, and patient group literature. The views of health professionals played a relatively small role. There is potentially a considerable opportunity to help patients arrive at a wider and more enabling explanation of their illness when they first present to primary care.