Most of the 15 people gathered for a support group this month did not look sick.
But when they began to talk about their common conditions, the list of symptoms went on and on.
Pain, fatigue, depression. Insomnia, nausea, headaches. Muscle spasms, ringing in the ears and sensitivity to heat, cold or light.
Dr. Charles Lapp has heard all of this before. He's medical director of the Hunter-Hopkins Center, a Charlotte clinic that focuses on patients with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. Many group members are his patients.
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But instead of letting the support group descend into gloom and despair, Lapp tries to lead with hope and help.
He's currently offering a new series of free classes that help patients take back some control over their lives and better cope with the main symptoms: pain, fatigue and insomnia.
“They're all related to one another,” Lapp said. “If one gets worse, the others get worse. Conversely, if you treat one and it gets better, the others get better, too.”
Some 9 million U.S. adults suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome, but many go undiagnosed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fibromyalgia affects as many as 6 million, says the CDC.
It's often difficult to distinguish between the two medical conditions. Some experts believe they are separate disorders. Others feel they are different facets of the same disorder. Pain is the primary symptom of fibromyalgia; fatigue is the main symptom in chronic fatigue syndrome.
The course Lapp is teaching was developed by Bruce Campbell, a California educator and psychologist who based the curriculum on his own experience in overcoming these often-misunderstood conditions.
Campbell's personal prescription involved “enforced rest” – setting limits and taking short rest periods every day – in addition to regular exercise, emotional support and medicine for symptom control.
“He was able to totally recover in five years,” Lapp said. “He can easily hike 10 to 15 miles, which is the envy of many patients with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.”
Clutter is common
At the recent support group meeting, Lapp asked the members – mostly women – to identify small, specific tasks they'd like to accomplish. Some mentioned the need to go to bed earlier or exercise regularly. Several wanted to organize their homes and get rid of clutter.
The clutter problem is almost universal with these patients, Lapp said. “They get so distracted that they start multiple projects, and the house ends up … a mess. It's overwhelming.”
As always, the group members offer ideas and support.
“Instead of trying to take on the whole room, maybe you could take on a table,” suggested Maggie Reed, 47, of Fort Mill.
“Or a corner of the table,” said Leslie Vann, 56, also from Fort Mill.
When Lapp asked for ideas on how to prevent fatigue and pain, suggestions included hot showers, massage, deep breathing and petting the dog.
Reed, who has suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia since 2006, said she visualizes a backyard pool and the landscaping she'd like to have around it to get her mind off pain or stress. “I go to what I call my ‘happy place,'” she said.
Kebbie Cannon, 45, of Waxhaw, who has had chronic fatigue syndrome for 22 years, said she tries not to get too cold because that causes her muscles to tense up in pain.
To the contrary, Reed said she works to avoid getting too hot. “I start to feel like I'm suffocating.” Several in the room said they also have trouble with heat.
Reed almost cried for joy when she heard that. Until she made these friends, she felt lonely and misunderstood.
Reed was a data analyst at Transamerica in Charlotte before going on medical disability last summer. “It just got harder and harder for me to continue working,” she said.
Having worked since she was 17, it's hard to be at home, “barely able to do a load of wash” or take care of her 13-year-old daughter. Because she doesn't look sick, she says other people view her skeptically. “I look fine, and I'm a large woman. You're automatically perceived as being fat and lazy. There's tremendous guilt and isolation,” Reed said.
The support group helps. “You can get together and make friends and say ‘I can't do it today,' and they understand,” Reed said. “We've had to create our own community because we're the only ones who understand what we're going through.”