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Cognitive behavioural therapy in chronic fatigue syndrome: a randomised controlled trial of an outpatient group programme.

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By H O’Dowd, et al • • October 18, 2006

Journal: Health Technology Assessment. 2006 Oct;10(37):1-140. Authors and Affiliation: O'Dowd H, Gladwell P, Rogers CA, Hollinghurst S, Gregory A. Pain Management Centre, Frenchay Hospital, Bristol, UK. PMID: 17014748

Objectives: To test the hypothesis that group cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) will produce an effective and cost-effective management strategy for patients in primary care with chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalopathy (CFS/ME).

Design: A double-blind, randomised controlled trial was adopted with three arms. Outcomes were assessed at baseline and 6 and 12 months after first assessment and results were analysed on an intention-to-treat basis. Setting: A health psychology department for the management of chronic illness in a general hospital in Bristol, UK. Participants: Adults with a diagnosis of CFS/ME referred by their GP. Interventions: The three interventions were group CBT incorporating graded activity scheduling, education and support group (EAS) and standard medical care (SMC). Outcome measures: The primary outcome measure was the Short Form with 36 Items (SF-36) physical and mental health summary scales. Other outcome measures included the Chalder fatigue scale, Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale, General Health Questionnaire, physical function (shuttles walked, walking speed and perceived fatigue), health utilities index and cognitive function (mood, recall and reaction times).

Results: A total of 153 patients were recruited to the trial and 52 were randomized to receive CBT, 50 to EAS and 51 to SMC. Twelve patients failed to attend for the 12-month follow-up and 19 patients attended one follow-up, but not both. The sample was found to be representative of the patient group and the characteristics of the three groups were similar at baseline. Three outcome measures, SF-36 mental health score, Chalder fatigue scale and walking speed, showed statistically significant differences between the groups. Patients in the CBT group had significantly higher mental health scores [difference +4.35, 95% confidence interval (CI) +0.72 to +7.97, p = 0.019], less fatigue (difference -2.61, 95% CI -4.92 to -0.30, p = 0.027) and were able to walk faster (difference +2.83 shuttles, 95% CI +1.12 to +5.53, p = 0.0013) than patients in the SMC group. CBT patients also walked faster and were less fatigued than those randomised to EAS (walking speed: difference +1.77, 95% CI +0.025 to +3.51, p = 0.047; fatigue: difference -3.16, 95% CI -5.59 to -0.74, p = 0.011). Overall, no other statistically significant difference across the groups was found, although for many measures a trend towards an improved outcome with CBT was seen. Except for walking speed, which, on average, increased by +0.87 shuttles (95% CI +0.09 to +1.65, p = 0.029) between the 6- and 12-month follow-ups, the scores were similar at 6 and 12 months. At baseline, 30% of patients had an SF-36 physical score within the normal range and 52% had an SF-36 mental health score in the normal range. At 12 months, the physical score was in the normal range for 46% of the CBT group, 26% of the EAS group and 44% of SMC patients. For mental health score the percentages were CBT 74%, EAS 67% and SMC 70%. Of the CBT group, 32% showed at least a 15% increase in physical function and 64% achieved a similar improvement in their mental health. For the EAS and SMC groups, this improvement in physical and mental health was achieved for 40 and 60% (EAS) and 49 and 53% (SMC), respectively. The cost-effectiveness of the intervention proved very difficult to assess and did not yield reliable conclusions.

Conclusions: Group CBT did not achieve the expected change in the primary outcome measure as a significant number did not achieve scores within the normal range post-intervention. The treatment did not return a significant number of subjects to within the normal range on this domain; however, significant improvements were evident in some areas. Group CBT was effective in treating symptoms of fatigue, mood and physical fitness in CFS/ME. It was found to be as effective as trials using individual therapy in these domains. However, it did not bring about improvement in cognitive function or quality of life. There was also evidence of improvement in the EAS group, which indicates that there is limited value in the non-specific effects of therapy. Further research is needed to develop better outcome measures, assessments of the broader costs of the illness and a clearer picture of the characteristics best fitted to this type of intervention.

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