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Weakness and fatigue are
terms that are often used as if they mean the same thing. But in fact they
describe two different sensations. It is important to know exactly what you
mean when you say "I feel weak" or "I am fatigued" because it can help you and
your doctor narrow down the possible causes of your symptoms.
Both weakness and fatigue are symptoms, not diseases. Because
these symptoms can be caused by many other health problems, the importance of
weakness and fatigue can be determined only when other symptoms are
General weakness often occurs after you have
done too much activity at one time, such as by taking an extra-long hike. You
may feel weak and tired, or your muscles may be sore. These sensations usually
go away within a few days.
In rare cases, generalized muscle
weakness may be caused by another health problem, such as:
Muscle weakness that is slowly getting worse requires a
visit to a doctor.
Sudden muscle weakness and loss of function in
one area of the body can indicate a serious problem within the brain (such as a
transient ischemic attack) or
spinal cord or with a specific nerve in the body.
Fatigue is a feeling of tiredness,
exhaustion, or lack of energy. You may feel mildly fatigued because of
overwork, poor sleep, worry, boredom, or lack of exercise. Any illness, such as
a cold or the flu, may cause fatigue, which usually goes away as the illness
clears up. Most of the time, mild fatigue occurs with a health problem that
will improve with home treatment and does not require a visit to a
A stressful emotional situation may also cause fatigue.
This type of fatigue usually clears up when the
stress is relieved.
Many prescription and
medicines can cause weakness or fatigue. The use or
abuse of alcohol, caffeine, or illegal drugs can cause fatigue.
visit to a doctor usually is needed when fatigue occurs along with more serious
symptoms, such as increased breathing problems,
signs of a serious illness, abnormal bleeding, or unexplained weight loss or
Fatigue that lasts longer than 2 weeks usually requires a
visit to a doctor. This type of fatigue may be caused by a more serious health
problem, such as:
Chronic fatigue syndrome is an uncommon
cause of severe, persistent fatigue.
If fatigue occurs without an
obvious cause, it is important to evaluate your mental health. Fatigue is a
common symptom of mental health problems, such as
depression. Fatigue and depression may become so
severe that you may consider suicide as a way to end your pain. If you think
your fatigue may be caused by a mental health problem, see your doctor.
Check your symptoms to decide if and when
you should see a doctor.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind
of care you may need. These include:
Based on your answers, you need
Call911or other emergency services now.
After you call
911 , the operator may tell you to chew 1 adult-strength (325 mg) or 2
to 4 low-dose (81 mg) aspirin. Wait for an ambulance. Do not try to drive yourself.
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The
problem probably will not get better without medical care.
Symptoms of serious illness may
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be
able to take care of this problem at home.
Neurological symptoms—which may be
signs of a problem with the nervous system—can affect many body functions.
Symptoms may include:
Heartbeat changes can include:
Symptoms of serious illness in a baby
may include the following:
Symptoms of a heart attack may
The more of these symptoms you have, the more likely it is that
you're having a heart attack. Chest pain or pressure is the most common
symptom, but some people, especially women, may not notice it as much as other
symptoms. You may not have chest pain at all but instead have shortness of breath, nausea, numbness,
tingling, or a strange feeling in your chest or other areas.
Many prescription and nonprescription drugs can cause
weakness and fatigue. A few examples are:
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical
Based on your answers, you need
If you have generalized weakness
and fatigue along with other symptoms, evaluate those symptoms. Home treatment
for your other symptoms usually will improve your weakness and fatigue. Mild
generalized weakness and fatigue that occur with a
viral illness usually improve with the following home
If generalized weakness and fatigue are not related to another
illness, follow the guidelines in the Prevention section and be patient. It may
take a while for you to feel energetic again.
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home
Mild fatigue can often be prevented by
changes in lifestyle habits.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your
doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the
While you are waiting for your appointment, it may be helpful
to keep a
diary of your symptomsdiary of your symptoms(What is a PDF document?).
January 7, 2013
William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine & David Messenger, MD
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.
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