Weakness

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 17, 2015
StartSymptomsWeakness

Physical weakness is a state where moving muscles is more difficult than that which is normally accustomed. Though weakness can be pervasive and interfere with all aspects of daily life, it should be noted that it is a symptom of a larger disease, not a disease itself. Knowing some of the main causes and symptoms of weakness can inform treatment and lead to a cessation and return to normal activity.

Contents

Definition & Facts

Weakness is normally divided into two categories: weakness that is rooted in difficult and extra effort needed to move muscles, and weakness that is more similar to difficulty moving because of pain. Both can cause slow, disjointed, or jerky movements, or create significant fatigue, or both can be accompanied by separate feelings of exhaustion and fatigue.

Chronic pain in particular can make moving a chore and increase feelings of tiredness. Though weakness particularly when it affects most of the body can feel like a disease unto itself, it's generally a symptom of some other disease and needs to be investigated with that in mind.

Causes

There are a variety of diseases, both chronic and acute, that can cause weakness. Common viruses can cause weakness while the body fights the infectious agents, especially if the disease is accompanied by diarrhea or vomiting.

The lack of desire to eat that often accompanies sickness can cause weakness from lack of calories, but will clear up when a normal eating routine is reestablished. In addition, simple over-exertion can cause weakness, as muscles take time to regain strength and rebuild.

Other acute factors include, but are not limited to:

More long term factors include thyroid problems, anemia, Myasthenia gravis, which is a systemic weakening of the muscles due to a chronic disorder, or depression, among others. A doctor can run diagnostic tests to determine what possible underlying cause could be creating the state of reduced strength and determine what the best course of action would be.

A sudden, extreme weakness, particularly in one side of the body, is cause to contact emergency services, as this can mean a stroke or something else in the brain or spinal column. Situations like this can be life or death, so immediate medical attention is absolutely critical.

When to see a doctor

If there is no acute cause like a virus or bacterial infection, and the weakness persists for several weeks, it would be a good idea to contact a physician. In addition, if the weakness has no discernible cause and continues to progress, a doctor will be necessary in order to investigate symptoms and come up with a solution.

If the cause is immediate, or if the weakness increases drastically from a known sickness, or is accompanied by a high fever, emergency services are necessary. Even if the cause is something like the flu, if there is a significant increase in fatigue or loss of strength, it can mean damage to the brain, central nervous system, or other dangerous and immediately life-threatening change.

Treatment & Therapy

The treatment for weakness is largely based on the successful treatment of the underlying cause. If the cause is a short-term virus then bed rest, fluids, and when possible, eating healthy foods can alleviate some of the strength loss. For vomiting or diarrhea, the loss of calories needs to be addressed first and foremost, and then food needs to be added as appetite returns. The key in most acute cases is to treat the virus or other infectious agent - regular functioning will return on its own within a short time generally.

For more long-term causes, the treatment can be anything from hormone therapy in the case of thyroid problems, to blood transfusions if the cause is anemia or some other blood disorder. Additional supplementation for electrolytes might be needed, particularly potassium if there is a problem that affects the absorption of minerals or vitamins. For fatigue and weakness caused by a general malaise or lack of interest, as with depression or other psychological factors, counseling and medicine are often prescribed.

Though this course of action might take longer, it will ensure the patient gradually comes back to their normal ability to function, and the physical aspects of the disease will also be alleviated. In most cases, added calories, adequate sleep, and proper nutrition will create an internal environment conducive to thriving, allowing a return to normal feelings of physical strength.

For extreme-onset cases, the prognosis and treatment depend heavily on the cause. If there is a stroke or other blockage, long-term solutions are likely hospitalization and rehabilitation.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Preventing weakness is often the same as simply taking steps to make sure the body is healthy. In general, preventing weakness and fatigue can be as simple as getting enough sleep, eating a well-balanced diet full of nutrient-dense foods like fruit and vegetables, getting regular exercise, and properly making sure that time is taken to relax.

Stress is a large contributing factor to physical and emotional burnout, which leads to weakness, disinterest, and lack of desire. The physical manifestations of heavy psychological burden are very real, interfering with sleep and regular mental function, and they must be addressed.

In the event of a sickness, particularly an infection, prevention can be very similar. Healthy diet and exercise bolster the immune system and train the body to work under stress more efficiently. Coupled with medication, particularly anti-inflammatory medicine, the weakening effects of the flu or other infections can be significantly minimized.

For chronic, long-term diseases like hypothyroidism, extra attention needs to be paid to the counteracting self-care remedies that alleviate general fatigue. Hormonal imbalances or other chronic causes of weakness can create swings in energy levels that even careful monitoring of activity can't prepare for, so making a daily log of energy levels and motivation can help doctors make informed calls about addressing specific needs. Addressing the underlying cause of weakness will always be the first step.

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