Fatigued or just tired? There is a difference

NEW YORK Wed Feb 7, 2007 10:33am EST

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Being tired is not the same as being fatigued or exhausted, and the difference matters, according to a researcher from Canada who has spent years investigating fatigue in various populations.

"It's important to recognize the difference between tiredness and fatigue, because fatigue is a marker that the body is not able to keep up," said Dr. Karin Olson, with the faculty of nursing at the University of Alberta. "The onset of the manifestations of fatigue, particularly if these are not normal states for you, should be taken seriously."

Olson has studied fatigue in cancer patients, people diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and depression, as well as shift workers and athletes. "These populations were chosen because they experienced fatigue for different reasons -- illness, work, or leisure activities," Olson told Reuters Health.

Olson has found that the while the reasons for fatigue may vary, the descriptions of fatigue are the same, although the kinds of adaptations required to conquer fatigue may not be.

Based her observations, Olson created new definitions for tiredness, fatigue and exhaustion that she believes represent various points on an energy continuum. She describes her work in the current issue of Oncology Nursing Forum.

People who are tired, Olson explained, still have a fair bit of energy but are apt to feel forgetful and impatient and experience muscle weakness following work, which is often alleviated by rest.

People who are fatigued, on the other hand, experience difficulty concentrating, anxiety, a gradual decrease in stamina, difficulty sleeping, and increased sensitivity to light. They also may skip social engagements once viewed as important to them.

People who suffer from exhaustion, Olson has observed, report frank confusion that resembles delirium, emotional numbness, sudden loss of energy, difficulty in staying awake as well as in sleeping and complete social withdrawal.

Failure to recognize the difference between tiredness, fatigue and exhaustion could lead to inappropriate approaches to combat the problem, which could make matters worse. For example, Olson has some evidence that while exercise may relieve tiredness, it may decrease the ability to adapt in people who are suffering from fatigue or exhaustion.

If it's fatigue or exhaustion, caffeine and other stimulants should be avoided as these substances fool the body into thinking it has more energy that it actually does.

Olson's advice: "Learn to recognize fatigue in yourself and those you care about -- friends, family, colleagues."

"Try to eliminate some of the life stressors, if you can, and also try to increase your resistance to stressors." One way to do this, Olson said, is to do something regularly that brings you joy. "It doesn't need to be big and it doesn't need to 'make sense' to others. It's something you do for yourself because you like it. Do it every day if you can, or at least a few times a week." It's a good lesson for today's stressed-out youth as well, Olson said.

SOURCE: Oncology Nursing Forum 2007.

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