Can chronic fatigue syndrome be treated? Rochester-based doctor is trying to find an answer

Ashley Zlatopolsky
Special to The Detroit News

When 68-year-old Marie Woznicki-Likavec of Sterling Heights fell ill with an unknown virus back in March, she was left with a myriad of physical and mental symptoms that couldn’t be explained.

However, a Rochester-based doctor may have a treatment.

After recovering from symptoms that fell in line with COVID-19 — chills, diarrhea and fever — she developed extreme fatigue, brain fog, weakness and memory problems that severely impacted her ability to function. Now, she struggles to drive, work and even speak. It’s a group of symptoms often referred to as chronic fatigue syndrome, which the Mayo Clinic characterizes as a complex disorder that has no known cause, but is thought to be triggered by viral infections or psychological stress.

Woznicki-Likavec is not alone in her experience.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that of 143 COVID-19 patients at a hospital in Rome, 87% still had at least one coronavirus symptom two months later, while more than half reported ongoing fatigue.

Dr. Joel L. Young, medical director at Rochester Center for Behavioral Medicine and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University School of Medicine

Testing was limited when Woznicki-Likavec fell ill, so she never found out for certain if she had COVID-19, but the many doctors she has seen to help alleviate symptoms believe coronavirus was the culprit. One of those doctors is Dr. Joel L. Young, medical director at Rochester Center for Behavioral Medicine and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University School of Medicine. 

Young, who specializes in managing chronic fatigue syndrome, completed a study that shows a promising treatment.

“It’s both a mental and physical fatigue,” Young says. Physical symptoms can include neck, joint and muscle pain, while the mental symptoms can include brain fog, compromised memory and difficulty speaking.

People with chronic fatigue syndrome can feel inundated “when a lot of stimuli are coming in at them,” he says. “They have a hard time talking on the phone and can feel overwhelmed by commotion in the house.”

It can also be an isolating condition, Young added, because chronic fatigue syndrome can be difficult to diagnose and manage. Oftentimes, many don’t realize the root of their problems lie in the disorder.

“People often spend years trying to find someone who can help them or who’s interested in helping them,” Young says. “They often have a very tense relationship with their providers because the providers don’t know exactly what to do for them.” 

In 2012, Young conducted a two-month study on 26 patients who experienced symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. Half were given lisdexamfetamine (LDX), which is an FDA-approved medication for ADHD and binge eating disorder. Its brand name is Vyvanse. The other half were given placebos.

According to Young’s study, patients who were treated with LDX reported improvement in their cognitive testing and fatigue. They also showed improvement in physical symptoms.

Young says people who participated in the study have been treated long-term with LDX and are doing well. The results of the study were published in Psychiatry Research journal and Young has also written about his findings in his latest book, "Understanding and Treating Chronic Fatigue: A Practical Guide for Patients, Families and Practitioners," released earlier this year.

As COVID-19 sheds more light on chronic fatigue syndrome, Young says he’s hopeful his studies will help pave the way for an approved treatment, especially as more people experience symptoms after the virus.

“We think that post-COVID, chronic fatigue symptoms and (general) chronic fatigue syndrome are a very related phenomenon,” he says. “The belief is that a minority of folks with an acute COVID-19 infection will develop these chronic fatigue symptoms.”

Dr. Justin Skrzynski, an internal medicine physician at Beaumont Royal Oak and one of the main doctors treating COVID-19 since March, has witnessed the “long-haulers” phenomenon, in which patients experience symptoms months after contracting coronavirus.

“A noticeable subset of our patients progress to be ‘long-haulers’ with chronic fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath and sometimes confusion,” he says.

One of the main risk factors for developing lingering symptoms, Skrzynski believes, is pre-existing chronic illness.

“Our COVID patients seem to be hit much harder in terms of weakness and fatigue than other patients who are similarly ill,” he says.

While Beaumont Health says it isn’t able to comment on Young’s study, people like Woznicki-Likavec are cautiously optimistic about his his approach.

“You start to feel like a crazy person,” she says of living with chronic fatigue syndrome. “But I want people to know they’re not crazy. There are other people who can relate to what we’re going through.”