Understanding MS-Related Fatigue


Gina Garippo

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Tired woman

If you have multiple sclerosis (MS), chances are you may suffer from fatigue. About 80% of people with MS are thought to battle this potentially disabling and overwhelming symptom. You may feel that it's just one more facet of your MS, so there's little help to be found.

But you don't have to live with the problem. In fact, there are many steps you can take to reduce feelings of tiredness and increase your energy. By recognizing fatigue as a real symptom and focusing on specific ways to improve it, you have the power to feel better each day.

Many Causes of Fatigue

There isn't just one reason that people with MS feel fatigued. Fatigue can stem from a number of factors. By understanding the specific cause of your fatigue, you and your doctor can better manage it. Here are some common causes of fatigue in people with MS and some steps to discuss with your doctor:  

Poor sleep. How did you sleep last night? MS-related symptoms, such as bladder problems or nighttime muscle spasms can interrupt your slumber and cause sleep deprivation. To help, ask your doctor about treatment options for the symptoms that rob you of a good night's sleep. Temporary use of sleep medications may also help.

Depression. Depression is common among people with MS. It may be associated with poor sleep and eating habits as well as general low feelings—all of which are linked to fatigue. If you suspect you may be depressed, it's important to seek help right away. Your doctor can aggressively treat your depression with counseling and medications.      

Nerve problems. Some people with MS experience an abnormal firing of nerves that can cause weakness in the arms and legs. Then, when you use your limbs continuously—such as when you fold laundry or go for a walk—you can feel fatigued. Taking periodic rest breaks can help, but to build stamina and reduce overall fatigue, try exercise. Moderate exercise can actually boost your endurance and strengthen muscles. Talk with a physical therapist who specializes in MS. He or she can tailor an exercise program to your needs. 

Lassitude. The most common type of fatigue among people with MS is called lassitude. Lassitude isn't completely understood, but it seems to stem from a chemical reaction in the brain. It causes sudden and overwhelming physical and mental tiredness that gets worse throughout the day and can be aggravated by heat or stress.  

A number of medications have been shown to combat lassitude. Amantidine (Symmetrel) is a medication that affects the nervous system. Some antidepressants, such as fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), and sertraline (Zoloft), may help, even if you aren't depressed. Stimulant medications such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) also may be used. Ask your doctor if medication may be right for you.

You Have the Power to Boost Energy

Regardless of what's causing your fatigue, there are many ways you can boost your energy levels. Talk with a physical therapist, who can teach you strategies to better conserve energy and suggest assistive devices that make some tasks less tiring. Taking your fatigue seriously and making an effort to reduce it can help you feel better each day.

Key Takeaways

  • About 80% of people with MS deal with fatigue.

  • Common causes include poor sleep, depression, nerve problems, and a chemical reaction in the brain called lassitude.

  • A physical therapist can teach you how to conserve energy and use helpful assistive devices. 

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Apr 22, 2017

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Medical References

  1. Fatigue. MS International Federation. http://www.msif.org/about-ms/symptoms-of-ms/fatigue/
  2. Fatigue. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. http://www.nationalmssociety.org/about-multiple-sclerosis/what-we-know-about-ms/symptoms/fatigue/ind...)
  3. Coping with Fatigue. Multiple Sclerosis Association of America. http://www.mymsaa.org/about-ms/symptoms/fatigue/

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