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IMAGINE waking up one morning feeling as if you've got flu, a hangover and that you've just been run over by a bus...

For the estimated 240,000 people in the UK with Myalgic Encephalopathy (M.E.), this is what it feels like nearly every day. Until recently, the medical profession doubted the existence of M.E., while the media dubbed it 'yuppie flu' - attributing it to high-fliers, who worked too hard and partied too long, or driven perfectionists.

Thankfully, this attitude is changing. M.E. is now recognised as a genuine and serious illness that affects people of all ages and from all walks of life. The Department of Health has told the medical profession to start taking this devastating condition more seriously, and showed how it can be better diagnosed and treated.

M.E. is often misunderstood because not everyone suffers to the same extent, symptoms vary and it does not show up on diagnostic tests.

The main symptoms involve the muscles (fatigue, pain, twitching), brain function (memory, concentration, balance, co-ordination) and the immune system (flu-like symptoms, joint pains, swollen glands, sore throats and disturbances in temperature control), all of which tend to follow on from viral illness in someone who was previously fit and well.

It can affect anyone, but it's more common in women and usually starts sometime between the mid-teens and mid-40s. While it is often referred to as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (the term preferred by the medical profession), many sufferers don't think this term takes into account the other symptoms or reflects how severe the condition can be.

Many patients - particularly those who are severely ill - complain that doctors recommend that they exercise their way to better health. Yet, there is a substantial body of evidence which shows that people with classic M.E. experience long delays in the restoration of muscle power after even a small amount of physical effort. Exercising beyond their energy levels can cause major relapses in people who could have sworn they were getting better.

Patient groups, such as The M.E. Association, argue that a form of gentle exercising intermingled with substantial periods of rest and known as 'pacing', is a better basis on which to build hopes for recovery.

No-one knows exactly what causes M.E., but it is generally accepted that it can be triggered by viral infections, such as flu or glandular fever. Patients who were under physical and mental stress at the time of the infection may be at particular risk, if the stresses have weakened their immune system. Chemical poisoning in the environment, such as exposure to insecticide sprays or sheep-dips, is also believed to be implicated in the rising level of M.E.cases.

While there is no diagnostic test for M.E., a range of tests will be carried out to rule out other conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or anaemia.

There is no drug to cure the illness, but patients can be prescribed medications to help relieve the more distressing symptoms, such as severe and unremitting muscle pain and sleep disorders.

The M.E. Association is a campaigning national charity which provides information and support to 240,000 people in the UK with M.E./Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, their families and carers, through a quarterly magazine, literature, education and training. It also runs M.E. Connect, the UK's premier helpline for people with M.E./CFS. Through its Ramsay Research Fund, the charity supports research into the physical nature and causes of M.E..

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