or years, people with chronic fatigue syndrome have wrangled with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over information on the agency’s website about this debilitating illness. The website highlighted two treatments that became the de facto standards of care: a gradual increase in exercise and a form of psychotherapy known as cognitive behavioral therapy. The problem was that the evidence doesn’t support these treatments.
This summer, after years of resisting pleas from patients, advocates, and clinicians, the CDC quietly dropped the treatment recommendations from its website. Its decision represents a major victory for the patient community — and for science. But the country’s lead public health agency still has a long way to go to meet its responsibilities to the estimated 1 million Americans with this disease.
Exercise and psychotherapy might sound like the most benign of recommendations. But the hallmark symptom of chronic fatigue syndrome (also called myalgic encephalomyelitis, or ME/CFS) is that overexertion triggers relapses that can leave patients much, much sicker, as the Institute of Medicine documented in a landmark 2015 report. So a steady increase in activity can easily cause further harm, not benefit. In multiple surveys, more patients report getting worse, not better, from these “graded exercise” programs.
The theory underlying the two discarded treatments arose in earlier decades when the medical and scientific communities largely dismissed the devastating illness as illusory or psychological. According to that theory, such patients harbor mistaken beliefs that they suffer from an actual physical disease. As a result, they remain sedentary out of a misguided fear that activity will make them worse. They then develop severe deconditioning, perpetuating their symptoms.
However, more recent studies from Stanford, Columbia, Cornell and elsewhere have demonstrated that ME/CFS patients suffer from immunological, neurological, and other systemic dysfunctions. And scientists have reported that the bodies of ME/CFS patients generate energy inefficiently if they push beyond their limited capacities.
Moreover, the key piece of evidence the CDC once cited to support its recommendations of exercise and psychotherapy has been debunked.
That evidence was a multimillion-dollar British study called the PACE trial, the largest ever of the illness. The first results appeared in the Lancet in 2011, with other findings published in Psychological Medicine in 2013 and many other journals. But the trial had a host of flaws that render its reported results nonsensical and uninterpretable. Most remarkably, the investigators relaxed their outcome measures so dramatically during the trial that participants could deteriorate during treatment on the key measure of physical functioning and still be declared “recovered.” Because of these changes, the findings were far more impressive than those the investigators would have obtained using the methods they originally proposed, as reanalyses of the trial data have shown.
The larger scientific community is up in arms over the problems with PACE. Earlier this year, more than 100 experts signed an open letter to Psychological Medicine (orchestrated and signed by one of us [DT]) stating that the trial’s flaws “are unacceptable in published research” and “cannot be defended or explained away.” The letter requested immediate retraction of the claim that patients “recovered” from the treatments. The journal refused the request.
Yet the trial and its claims remain hugely influential. In the U.S., Kaiser Permanente, the Mayo Clinic, and WebMD all continue to promote the therapies. So does UpToDate, a popular decision-making tool for clinicians. In the United Kingdom, graded exercise and cognitive behavior therapy continue to be the most widely offered treatments for the illness through the National Health Service system. However, the country’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which creates clinical guidelines that are widely followed, recently announced that it will be conducting a “full update” of its current recommendations, citing the CDC’s decision as one reason for the update.
Despite the significance of the changes, few medical professionals are aware the CDC has dropped the exercise and psychotherapy recommendations. Nor do they know about the extreme care with which people with ME/CFS need to regulate their activity. If your doctor were to diagnose you with this condition today, the odds are good that you’d be advised to exercise your way out of it and to consult a psychotherapist.
While the CDC deserves credit for having removed information based on bad science, that alone is not enough. The agency must also undo the damage it has caused.
First, the CDC needs to acknowledge that it got things wrong. So far, the agency has stated in response to questions that the changes were made because “there has been confusion about what we recommend related to exercise and therapy,” and the agency had not intended to recommend the PACE trial treatments despite using identical terminology. Given that ME/CFS advocates lobbied the CDC for years specifically about the problems with recommending these therapies, that explanation is hard to take seriously. An honest acknowledgement of error will go far toward reestablishing trust with the ME/CFS patient community.
Second, the CDC must actively disseminate the news that it no longer recommends these two ineffective and possibly harmful therapies and that no legitimate evidence supports their use. This should be part of a muscular plan, coordinated with the National Institutes of Health and other agencies, to counter the prevalent myths about ME/CFS among doctors, other health care providers, and the general public.
Third, the agency needs to reach out directly to health care and medical organizations, such as Kaiser Permanente and the Mayo Clinic, to urge them to stop recommending the treatments and ensure that the information they provide is truly up to date. That outreach should include the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.
For decades, the ME/CFS patient community has been waiting for the CDC to get this right. The agency has finally taken a step in the right direction. Now it needs to redouble its efforts to find legitimate answers to the many outstanding questions about the illness and to investigate treatments that might actually work.
Julie Rehmeyer is a contributing editor to Discover magazine and author of “Through the Shadowlands: A Science Writer’s Odyssey into an Illness Science Doesn’t Understand,” a memoir describing the science, history, and politics of chronic fatigue syndrome. David Tuller is a senior fellow in public health and journalism at the Center for Global Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. Members of the ME/CFS patient community generously donated to a crowdfunding campaign in support of Tuller’s position at Berkeley.