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Fatigue is one of the most common complaints related by pts. It usually refers to nonspecific sense of a low energy level, or the feeling that near exhaustion is reached after relatively little exertion. Fatigue should be distinguished from true neurologic weakness, which describes a reduction in the normal power of one or more muscles (Chap. 55). It is not uncommon for pts, especially the elderly, to present with generalized failure to thrive, which may include components of fatigue and weakness, depending on the cause.


Because the causes of generalized fatigue are numerous, a thorough history, review of systems (ROS), and physical examination are paramount to narrow the focus to likely causes. The history and ROS should focus on the temporal onset of fatigue and its progression. Has it lasted days, weeks, or months? Activities of daily living, exercise, eating habits/appetite, sexual practices, and sleep habits should be reviewed. Features of depression or dementia should be sought. Travel history and possible exposures to infectious agents should be reviewed, along with the medication list. The ROS may elicit important clues as to organ system involvement. The past medical history may elucidate potential precursors to the current presentation, such as previous malignancy or cardiac problems. The physical examination should specifically assess weight and nutritional status, lymphadenopathy, hepatosplenomegaly, abdominal masses, pallor, rash, heart failure, new murmurs, painful joints or trigger points, and evidence of weakness or neurologic abnormalities. A finding of true weakness or paralysis should prompt consideration of neurologic disorders (Chap. 55).


Determining the cause of fatigue can be one of the most challenging diagnostic problems in medicine because the differential diagnosis is very broad, including infection, malignancy, cardiac disease, endocrine disorders, neurologic disease, depression, or serious abnormalities of virtually any organ system, as well as side effects of many medications (Table 31-1). Symptoms of fever and weight loss will focus attention on infectious causes, whereas symptoms of progressive dyspnea might point toward cardiac, pulmonary, or renal causes. A presentation that includes arthralgia suggests the possibility of a rheumatologic disorder. Fatigue is a common presenting symptom of cancer. A previous malignancy, thought to be cured or in remission, may have recurred or metastasized widely. A previous history of valvular heart disease or cardiomyopathy may identify a condition that has decompensated. Treatment for Graves’ disease may have resulted in hypothyroidism. Sleep apnea is under-recognized and is a common cause of unexplained fatigue. Changes in medication should always be pursued, whether discontinued or recently started. Almost any new medication has the potential to cause fatigue. However, a temporal association with a new medication should not eliminate other causes, because many pts may have received new medications in an effort to address their complaints. Medications and their dosages should be carefully assessed, especially in elderly pts, in whom polypharmacy ...

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