Spoon theory

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The spoon theory is a way of describing the experience of chronic illness and its limitations using a metaphor.[1][2] It was created by Christine Miserandino, who has lupus, an invisible illness which causes chronic fatigue, chronic pain and many other symptoms that limit her energy levels and ability to do everyday things.[1]

How spoon theory works[edit | edit source]

Spoon theory poster
  • A person has roughly the same amount of energy each day.
  • Each unit of energy is represented by a spoon.
  • Healthy people having more spoons (energy) than those with an illness that causes chronic fatigue.
  • Some activities cost more spoons than others.
  • A person with a fatiguing chronic illness needs to make decide about which activities to spend their limited or number of spoons (energy) on - the illness stops them doing many things they want to do.
  • The chronic illness means that if the person does too much in the morning, they will not spoons left for the afternoon or evening.
  • The chronic illness may mean that a person can do something in the morning OR on the afternoon - but both - they seem inconsistent because their energy levels fluctuate.
  • A healthy person does not need to plan how to spend their spoons, because they do not have an illness that limits them[1][2].

Spoons and energy[edit | edit source]

get up
0
1
get dressed
take medication
take shower
take medication

Example: 12 spoons per day[edit | edit source]

In the poster above, a person with 12 spoons per day could use them to:

  • get up (1 spoon),
  • get dressed (1 spoon),
  • take medication (1 spoon),
  • and drive (3 spoons) to work,
  • work (4 spoons),

which would be 10 spoons. They then would then have two remaining spoon, which would not be enough to cook a meal (3 spoons), visit the doctor (4 spoons), socialize (3 spoons) or do light housework (3 spoons). But they would have just enough energy to watch TV (1 spoon) or read (2 spoons). If they wanted to cook and eat a meal or socialize, they could plan those on days that they are not doing high energy activities, such as driving or working.

This careful planning would help avoid over-exertion, but would not be necessary for a healthy person, who may have enough spoons to do almost any combination of activities.

Example: a healthy person's day off work: 17 spoons[edit | edit source]

The person:

  • gets up and dresses (1 + 1 spoons)
  • has a shower (2 spoons)
  • styles their hair after the shower (2 spoons)
  • drives (3 spoons) to the supermarket
  • buys food (3 spoons)
  • cooks and eats a meal (3 spoons)
  • watches some TV (1 spoon)
  • then makes plans and socializes (3 spoons)

This is a total of 17 spoons. This might be a typical "relaxing" day for a healthy person, but is far beyond the capability of the person with only 12 spoons, who is probably only able to work part-time (if at all).

Example: 4 spoons per day[edit | edit source]

A person with more severe chronic fatigue, but who still has more energy than those with very severe ME/CFS. This would be enough to:

  • get up (1 spoon)
  • get dressed (1 spoon)
  • watch TV (1 spoon)

But it would be impossible for them to visit the doctor (4 spoons) because they would have to get up first (1 spoon) and get dressed (1 spoon). It would also be impossible to get up (1 spoon) and cook and eat a meal (3 spoons) if they also needed to take medication (1 spoon) or slept badly (1 less spoon then normal).

Visiting the doctor or cooking would be more than the energy available, leading to significant post-exertional malaise which could last days.

Why use spoons?[edit | edit source]

Spoon Theory

Most people start the day with unlimited amount of possibilities, and energy to do whatever they desire, especially young people. For the most part, they do not need to worry about the effects of their actions.

So for my explanation, I used spoons to convey this point. I wanted something for her to actually hold, for me to then take away, since most people who get sick feel a “loss” of a life they once knew.

If I was in control of taking away the spoons, then she would know what it feels like to have someone or something else, in this case Lupus, being in control.

Christine Miserandino, ButYouDontLookSick.com

Spoon theory and ME/CFS[edit | edit source]

Many people with chronic fatigue syndrome have adopted the terminology used in the spoon theory to explain their limited energy levels and the effects of their fatigue or other symptoms to healthy people.

ME/CFS is an invisible illness, and the level of fatigue can fluctuate during the day, often depending on how many spoons of energy have already been used that day. This makes it difficult for healthy people to understand, and some people may be judged as "lazy" for being unable to consistently do everyday activities,[2] for instance being able to cook only on certain days or only once per day.

There is no suggested guide for using spoon theory with ME/CFS and it may not represent the impact of all symptoms.

Being a spoonie[edit | edit source]

Some people with ME/CFS or other chronic illness refer to themselves as spoonies, meaning people who have "a very limited units of energy that must be carefully rationed".[3]

Pacing and spoon theory[edit | edit source]

Spoon theory can be used both to explain the limitations of chronic fatigue or chronic illness, and as a simple method of pacing, which involves manage energy levels in order to prevent over-exertion.

Notable studies[edit | edit source]

No studies have been carried out on the effectiveness of using spoon theory either to explain the effects of a chronic illness, or as a method of pacing to help avoid the post-exertional malaise caused by over-exertion.

Articles[edit | edit source]

Blogs[edit | edit source]

Learn more[edit | edit source]

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Myalgic encephalomyelitis or chronic fatigue syndrome


The information provided at this site is not intended to diagnose or treat any illness.

From MEpedia, a crowd-sourced encyclopedia of ME and CFS science and history