BACKGROUND: Chronic fatiguing illnesses, including chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), pose a diagnostic and therapeutic challenge. Previous clinical reports addressed the utilization of health care provided to patients with CFS by a variety of practitioners with other than allopathic training, but did not examine the spectrum of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies used. This study was designed to measure CAM therapy use by persons with fatiguing illnesses in the United States population. METHODS: During a random-digit dialing survey to estimate the prevalence of CFS-like illness in urban and rural populations from different geographic regions of the United States, we queried the utilization of CAM including manipulation or body-based therapies, alternative medical systems, mind-body, biologically-based, and energy modalities. RESULTS: Four hundred forty fatigued and 444 non-fatigued persons from 2,728 households completed screening. Fatigued subjects included 53 persons with prolonged fatigue, 338 with chronic fatigue, and 49 with CFS-like illness. Mind-body therapy (primarily personal prayer and prayer by others) was the most frequently used CAM across all groups. Among women, there was a significant trend of increasing overall CAM use across all subgroups (p-trend = 0.003). All categories of CAM use were associated with significantly poorer physical health scores, and all but one (alternative medicine systems) were associated with significantly poorer mental health scores. People with CFS-like illness were significantly more likely to use body-based therapy (chiropractic and massage) than non-fatigued participants (OR = 2.52, CI = 1.32, 4.82). Use of body-based therapies increased significantly in a linear trend across subgroups of non-fatigued, prolonged fatigued, chronic fatigued, and CFS-like subjects (p-trend = 0.002). People with chronic fatigue were also significantly more likely to use body-based therapy (OR = 1.52, CI = 1.07, 2.16) and mind-body (excluding prayer) therapy than non-fatigued participants (OR = 1.73, CI = 1.20 - 2.48). CONCLUSION: Utilization of CAM was common in fatiguing illnesses, and was largely accounted for by the presence of underlying conditions and poor physical and mental health. Compared to non-fatigued persons, those with CFS-like illness or chronic fatigue were most likely to use body-based and mind-body therapies. These observations have important implications for provider education programs and development of intervention strategies for CFS.