Fatigue: When The Symptom Can Be Misleading
Fatigue is a common symptom of many of the diseases and conditions we talk about here on the FindMeCure blog. From arthritis and IBD to myasthenia gravis, a feeling of muscle weakness and lack of energy is characteristic of an underlying problem that needs to be properly addressed.
When we talk about fatigue as a symptom, however, we need to have a working definition of what fatigue is and when we should be concerned. We need to keep one more thing in mind as well – fatigue can be a condition and of its own or a symptom of an unhealthy lifestyle in need of some major changes. Today we’d like to start a discussion about all three of these cases of fatigue and give you some practical advice on how to talk about your symptoms with your primary healthcare provider.
But firstly, what is fatigue and how is it different than tiredness or drowsiness? Fatigue can be both mental or physical and for many people, it manifests as both. Physical fatigue is easy to spot – weak, achy or sore muscles, lack of energy to perform daily tasks, sleepiness at unusual times of the day. Mental fatigue is trickier and it can be hard to distinguish from some forms of mental health issues like anxiety and depression or even a case of severe burnout – apathy and lack of motivation, lack of excitement associated with pleasant activities, even feelings of pointlessness to daily tasks and hobbies.
Fatigue is a serious issue not only because it can be a symptom of a disease but also because it can intervene with daily life: 20% of Americans report fatigue significant enough to affect their quality of life. A physical cause is responsible for 20% to 60% of those cases, while the remaining 40% to 80% are due to mental or emotional issues.
Fatigue as a result of an unhealthy lifestyle
Before you get alarmed and schedule an appointment with your primary physician or a therapist, make sure the cause of your fatigue is not a lifestyle one. If you experience no other symptoms, you may have to introduce some healthy changes to your way of life.
Fatigue can be the result of unhealthy eating, where lack of nutrition is characterised by no significant diversity of foods from different food groups, rather than a restriction in calories. Although restricting your calories below what your body needs to perform optimally can be dangerous too, even if you consume a reasonable amount of daily calories, you can still lack proper nutrition. In order to give your body the essential nutrients it needs, you have to objectively assess your eating habits: do you consume enough fresh fruit and vegetables or does your diet consist primarily of microwavable meals?
An important aspect of health is physical activity and there’s a reason we’re so adamant about it on the blog. Apart from the physical conditions and diseases, a lack of physical activity can lead to mental health issues as well as low energy levels. You don’t need to be an athlete, however, as moderate daily exercise could be all the physical activity you need to feel your best.
On the flip side, excessive exercising (a type of disorder on its own, linked to eating disorders) can also be the cause of fatigue. Make sure that you have plenty of rest after an intense workout and that you don’t have more than two or three intense sessions a week. Remember that sleep is essential for the proper rest of your body, so if you don’t get the recommended 8 hours, think about introducing some changes in your sleeping habits. If you still experience fatigue after changing your life for the healthier or apathy and feelings of meaninglessness make that impossible, the cause of your fatigue may be different.
Fatigue as a symptom of mental health disturbances
Don’t self-diagnose with depression or anxiety before you rule out burnout. Burnout is starting to get recognised as the serious mental health issue that it is. It is not simply the result of workplace stress, however, as you can experience burnout related to your studies, your housework and parenting duties if you’re a stay-at-home parent, your volunteer work and activism or any other pursuit you put a lot of energy into. Exessive and prolonged stress is never good for your health but burnout comes with its own challenges and fatigue is often one of them.
If you feel overwhelmed and under constant pressure, evaluating the way you have constructed your life is the first thing you need to do. Some of those things that are sources of stress now can be limited or cut out completely for some time before you have the mental and emotional capacity to deal with them again if you have to. This also includes stressful interactions and even projects you’re otherwise passionate about.
There are some studies that suggest mindfulness meditation, yoga and cognitive behavioural therapy can have a positive impact on fatigue. One such study into the benefits of yoga on cancer survivors concludes that yoga can improve sleep quality as well as fatigue symptoms, while a 2017 study investigated all three approaches – mindfulness, yoga and CBT – to find out that they improve sleep, decrease anxiety and fatigue and result in an overall improved quality of life.
If you suspect burnout is not a likely explanation, a consultation with a mental health specialist can help you determine the cause of your fatigue. Depression and anxiety can be managed with the right treatment, so don’t hesitate to seek help and don’t suffer in silence.
Fatigue as a symptom of a disease
Before we talk about the potential underlying physical causes of fatigue, you should know that fatigue can be a disorder of its own called Chronic Fatigue Syndrom (CFS). Difficult to diagnose CFS is typically not linked to any medical conditions that could explain it. What causes CFS is still unclear though specialist theorize that it may be the result of psychological stress, a viral infection or a combination of different factors. There are no specific tests to diagnose it and there is no cure to address it, so treatment focuses on symptoms relief.
When fatigue is not the only symptom, however, it can point to a disease such as anaemia, arthritis, fibromyalgia, Addison’s disease, under- or overactive thyroid, autoimmune disorders, kidney or liver disease, COPD or even cancer. Fatigue should not induce panic but at the same time, it can be a give-away symptom of something going wrong and scheduling a doctor’s appointment is wise if you experience fatigue regularly and without a visible cause.
If your body temperature is higher than normal for you, you recently lost some weight without changing your habits, if you suddenly became unusually sensitive to cold temperatures, if you began experiencing sleeping issues – a visit with a doctor is in order. However, in some cases, an immediate intervention needs to take place and we urge you not to wait until you have severe headaches, chest pain or rectal bleeding.
Diseases that cause fatigue may not have an end-all cure but there are treatments that can effectively address the symptoms and improve quality of life, so the sooner you receive a diagnosis, the sooner you can receive the right treatment and go back to your life as normal. However, we at FindMeCure recognise that not everyone will benefit from the existing treatments and some drugs on the market, though effective and safe, can have severe side effects for some patients.
Clinical research is where we look for hope in those cases and you can benefit from novel treatments before they are released by enrolling in a clinical research study. If you’re looking for a better treatment or a way to help research on its way to providing patients with answers, joining a clinical trial can be a good option for you.