Managing MS Fatigue

Fatigue is a common and frustrating symptom of multiple sclerosis (MS). It is not a highly visible symptom and its potential impact on people living with MS can be difficult for others to understand.

There are however a number of strategies you can use to help manage fatigue.

How MS fatigue is different to other types of fatigue

Ordinary fatigue is described as a sensation of muscular tiredness and weakness. It is the tired feeling everyone experiences after an excessively busy day or a lack of sleep. It is the type of fatigue that is usually managed by rest and a good night’s sleep. Ordinary fatigue is quite different to the fatigue experienced in MS.

Fatigue associated with MS is described as an overwhelming sense of tiredness that can occur at any time of the day without warning. MS-fatigue usually occurs more rapidly, lasts longer and takes more time to recover from than ordinary fatigue.

MS-fatigue can occur for no apparent reason or after relatively mild exertion, such as a short period of walking, writing or reading, with an immediate need to rest.

Effects of fatigue

As with other symptoms of MS, the effects of fatigue vary from person to person. MS-fatigue can be temporary, such as during a relapse, an infection or unrelated illness, or when initially taking some MS medications. MS-fatigue can also be ongoing even after rest. The fatigue a person with MS experiences is not always in proportion to the activity undertaken or the person’s level of ability.

When a person with MS becomes fatigued, other symptoms can temporarily worsen, such as muscle weakness, visual disturbances, and difficulties concentrating or making decisions. Equally, MS-fatigue can result from other MS symptoms such as mobility problems, pain, muscle weakness or depression.

Managing fatigue

Managing fatigue begins with acknowledging that it is typically a part of having MS, listening to your body, and learning to recognise the early signs of fatigue and how it affects you. Taking a proactive approach to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and balancing your time, energy and stress can all help towards regaining a sense of control.

Because of the complexity of MS-fatigue, the first step in effective management is to identify any secondary factors contributing to your fatigue, which may include coexisting medical conditions, inadequate diet, poor fitness, disrupted sleep, medication side effects, stress, depression, hormonal changes or heat sensitivity.

Fatigue management strategies

Keep a healthy, well-balanced diet

Inadequate carbohydrate intake, fad diets or skipping meals can result in feelings of fatigue and lethargy. Healthy food is the fuel for your body that provides you with energy. Similarly, ensure you stay hydrated throughout the day as dehydration can lead to fatigue.

Stay as active as you can

Low levels of physical activity can result in overall decreased fitness. Talk to your doctor, a physiotherapist or trained fitness instructor about exercises to increase your stamina and strength and that are suited to your ability.

Assess your sleep patterns

Consider your sleep patterns and identify any unhealthy habits that can be modified. Speak to your doctor if sleep problems persist.

Educate your family and friends about MS fatigue and its hidden impact

Don’t be afraid to share the load and ask for help when needed.

Seek guidance from your health care team

Your health care team can advise you on practical strategies for managing other MS symptoms that may be contributing to your fatigue. Speak to your doctor if you are experiencing depression, which can reduce your motivation and exaggerate feelings of fatigue.

Balance activity with rest

This will to restore your body and mind and help you regain energy. Resting your body and mind can be best achieved through meditation or other relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or listening to relaxing music. Schedule in short and frequent rest breaks across the day so that you can work more efficiently and effectively.

Be sure not to abandon pleasurable activities

These can be a great source of energy and joy.

Establish your priorities

When planning your day and week, first focus on those activities that must be done and leave the not so important tasks to times when you are feeling less fatigued. If your fatigue is greater in the afternoon, try completing jobs that require higher levels of concentration or physical effort in the morning.

Find ways to conserve your energy

Is there an easier way to do something? Can the job be broken down into smaller tasks? Can you sit down rather than standing up to do an activity? Take a look at your working or home environment – can it be modified? How and where items are stored, the height of working areas, and the types of furnishing and lighting can all influence the amount of energy required to complete an activity.

Manage heat sensitivity

Even the smallest increase in temperature can increase a person’s fatigue. Similar to MS-fatigue and the need to rest and recover, the body needs to cool down if affected by heat and humidity.

Getting help

Your neurologist or general practitioner (GP) can provide information on the medical management of fatigue and any medication side effects which may be increasing your fatigue.

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Download the MSQ Managing Fatigue Fact Sheet

Includes information and resources to help you manage MS fatigue.

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