Everyone feels tired at some point - getting too little sleep, recovering from common illnesses, an unexpectedly heavy workload, partying into the night. But when should tiredness be taken seriously?
Exhaustion that lingers isn’t the norm. In a healthy person, exhaustion is temporary and remedied by extra rest. But there’s a second kind of tiredness that’s prolonged.
The term “fatigue” describes an overall feeling of a lack of vitality. People who are fatigued are deficient in energy and usually lack motivation. It’s not the same thing as feeling sleepy, yet drowsiness can be one of the symptoms. Fatigue is also different from weakness, which is a lack or loss of muscle strength.
Pay close attention to the latter type - tiredness that’s taking a toll on your physical, mental, or emotional health. Weariness that lasts could be caused by sleep deprivation, dietary issues, or the effects of boredom and repetitive tasks, but there’s also a possibility that a tired mind and body reveal an underlying illness.
What are the Symptoms of Fatigue?
Some or all of these symptoms can accompany fatigue:
- General tiredness or weariness that saps your energy
- Decrease in concentration and memory
- Rarely feeling alert
- Falling asleep suddenly or without trying to sleep (sometimes called “micro” sleeps)
- Lack of motivation
- Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
- Digestive tract issues
- Loss of appetite
- Inability to manage daily affairs, or be productive at work.
Technically, fatigue is described as either acute or chronic. Acute fatigue is the result of sleep loss or periods of heavy physical or mental activity. It’s not long lasting. Sleep and relaxation improve the situation since there’s a specific reason for it. In those cases, recovery is pretty much assured. Chronic (meaning persistent or constantly recurring) is a different story.
The Mayo Clinic Staff describes the two distinct types of fatigue this way:
“Instances of temporary fatigue usually have an identifiable cause and a likely remedy.
Unrelenting exhaustion, on the other hand, lasts longer, is more profound, and isn't relieved by rest. It's a nearly constant state of weariness that develops over time and reduces your energy, motivation and concentration. Fatigue at this level impacts your emotional and psychological well-being, too.”
How Can I Determine Which Type I’m Experiencing?
Start by ruling out common causes of tiredness. Your fatigue could be the result of:
- Physical overexertion - new forms of exercise, a job that requires lifting, seasonal yard work or heavy cleaning
- Work or social schedule that’s too full
- Lack of exercise and sedentary lifestyle
- Emotional or mental stress - relationship issues, new job or pressures at work, moving to a new home, grief, death in the family etc.
- Lack of sleep - getting to bed late, overusing caffeine or alcohol, interrupted sleep deprivation from a new baby or sick children
- Common illnesses like colds or flu
- Inadequate diet or obesity
- Overuse of alcohol or tobacco
Make an honest effort to address lifestyle causes of tiredness. Get extra rest and 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Address poor eating habits and drink plenty of water. Gradually cut back on caffeine. Caffeine does provide temporary energy, but heavy use can result in fatigue, especially in periods of withdrawal. Work at lowering your use of alcohol and tobacco.
Add some reasonable exercise a few times each week. Pinpoint sources of stress, and do what you can to find solutions. Enlist help from others, talk to a therapist, and participate in relaxing activities like yoga or mindfulness training.
If these steps don’t help and fatigue continues for more than a few weeks, it’s time to dig deeper. Fatigue can point to underlying conditions from mild to urgent varieties. Simply getting some extra rest isn’t likely to relieve fatigue caused by medical conditions. When not remedied by good nutrition and sufficient rest, fatigue warrants a trip to the doctor.
Persistent weariness could be from a physical or mental health condition. Diagnosis and specific treatment may be required to treat it. Don’t be reluctant or embarrassed to get help. Fatigue is one of the most common medical complaints! An estimated 10 million patients seek the help of medical personnel each year due to symptoms of fatigue.
It can be somewhat challenging for doctors to assess and treat. That’s because fatigue is common in everyday life, but it can be related to a profusion of medical conditions.
Persistent fatigue usually leads to tests to determine underlying physical or psychological conditions. If your doctor suspects one of these is related to your fatigue, they’ll order one or more tests.
They’ll also want to know about medications or substances you ingest. Be thorough (and be honest) about any use of these.
Substances that cause fatigue include prescription and over-the-counter medications. Blood pressure medication, painkillers, antihistamines, steroids, and tranquilizers cause fatigue. But so can marijuana and street drugs, or using alcohol regularly.
Be prepared to answer questions that help to develop a diagnosis. Go with an estimate of when the fatigue started and a description of how it affects you. Write down other symptoms you have noticed, and whether the fatigue is worse or better at certain times than others.
Let the doctor know about other medical conditions you have, as well as your general lifestyle and forms of stress you face. These clues may prove invaluable in conjunction with tests performed.
Which Physical Health Conditions are Accompanied by Fatigue?
Excessive tiredness for physical reasons can be related to simple, common infections, such as colds and flu. Rule those out first.
But there’s a comprehensive list of health issues that could present as fatigue or include fatigue as one symptom. Some of them are:
- Addison’s disease (affects hormone levels)
- Autoimmune diseases/lupus and others
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, AKA myalgic encephalomyelitis (see detail below)
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Congestive heart failure
- Eating disorders
- Hay fever or other seasonal allergies
- Heart disease
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Sleep disorders
One particular type of physical fatigue is striking because the tiredness is extreme. It’s called chronic fatigue syndrome.
Chronic fatigue syndrome is mysterious and hard to treat. It’s a constant, severe tiredness that doesn’t get better by getting more rest. Women are more likely than men to experience any fatigue, are 4 times more likely to develop this syndrome than men.
CFS is a term given to a group of symptoms, with fatigue dominating. Symptoms are often similar to the flu, including muscle and joint pain, headaches, sore throat, and tender lymph nodes. The fatigue interferes with sleep, resulting in sleep that doesn’t refresh.
Infections, stress, immune issues, and nutritional deficiencies are possible causes but the exact cause is unknown. There’s no blood test either. Fatigue experienced for more than six months, especially accompanied by chronic pain or other typical symptoms, will cause your doctor to consider this possibility.
Which Mental Health Conditions are Accompanied by Fatigue?
Physical problems aren’t the only source for fatigue. Depression and a wide spectrum of mental, emotional, or psychological issues can cause extreme weariness, too.
Fatigue is associated with depression, grief, anxiety, stress, and seasonal affective disorder. The issue gets more complicated when medications taken for depression or anxiety cause fatigue on their own.
It’s extremely important to be under a knowledgeable doctor’s care for mental health issues. A broad approach that involves medication, relational networks, and various forms of therapy should be formulated quickly.
Don’t rule out the need to cut off toxic relationships that are draining. Psychology Today points out that “unhealthy relationships can turn into a toxic internal environment leading to stress, depression, anxiety, and even medical problems.”
What are the Effects of Fatigue on Work and Career?
The impact of fatigue in the workplace ranges from lack of productivity to a downright hazard. Fatigue causes mistakes, adds to production costs, and leads to vehicle or workplace accidents.
Shift rotation patterns, unbalanced workloads, and poor workplace environment lead to tired workers. Studies show that workers who sleep less than 5 hours before work or workers who’ve been awake for more than 16 hours have a high probability of making mistakes.
The number of hours awake are similar to blood alcohol levels! It impairs judgement, lowers motivation, reduces concentration, and reduces reaction time.
Some people have simply too much work. All parents of young kids run the risk of exhaustion. Mothers of newborns or toddlers, who also work outside the home, may be highly susceptible to fatigue.
Exercise to Manage Fatigue
We’ve already considered various approaches to eliminate causes of fatigue from obvious lifestyle improvements to seeking medical help. It turns out that exercise is a powerful treatment for the problem, especially short-lived forms of fatigue.
A New York Times article shares that “When a person is sapped by fatigue, the last thing he or she wants to do is exercise. But new research shows that regular, low-intensity exercise may help boost energy levels in people suffering from fatigue.”
Daily 30-minute moderate exercise has shown more consistent benefit for fatigue symptoms than any other treatment studied, but there’s one glaring exception. Chronic fatigue sufferers should see their doctor before beginning an exercise program. Exercise can temporarily worsen symptoms of CFS and cause relapsing exhaustion for days or weeks. That doesn’t mean CFS patients shouldn’t exercise, but they need a balanced approach to build stamina.
A final word of caution - seek professional help immediately if fatigue is accompanied by any of these serious symptoms: vomiting blood, severe headache, pain in the chest area, rectal bleeding, feeling faint, irregular heart beat, shortness of breath, severe pain in abdomen, back, or pelvic region, thoughts of suicide, thoughts of harming another person. Call 911 for help or get someone to take you to a hospital.