Intended for healthcare professionals

Clinical Review ABC of psychological medicine


BMJ 2002; 325 doi: (Published 31 August 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:480
  1. Michael Sharpe,
  2. David Wilks

    Fatigue can refer to a subjective symptom of malaise and aversion to activity or to objectively impaired performance. It has both physical and mental aspects. The symptom of fatigue is a poorly defined feeling, and careful inquiry is needed to clarify complaints of “fatigue,” “tiredness,” or “exhaustion” and to distinguish lack of energy from loss of motivation or sleepiness, which may be pointers to specific diagnoses (see below).

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    Weary 1887 by Edward Radford (1831-1920)

    Prevalence—Like blood pressure, subjective fatigue is normally distributed in the population. The prevalence of clinically significant fatigue depends on the threshold chosen for severity (usually defined in terms of associated disability) and persistence. Surveys report that 5-20% of the general population suffer from such persistent and troublesome fatigue. Fatigue is twice as common in women as in men but is not strongly associated with age or occupation. It is one of the commonest presenting symptoms in primary care, being the main complaint of 5-10% of patients and an important subsidiary symptom in a further 5-10%.

    Fatigue as a symptom—Patients generally regard fatigue as important (because it is disabling), whereas doctors do not (because it is diagnostically non-specific). This discrepancy is a potent source of potential difficulty in the doctor-patient relationship. Fatigue may present in association with established medical and psychiatric conditions or be idiopathic. Irrespective of cause, it has a major impact on day to day functioning and quality of life. Without treatment, the prognosis of patients with idiopathic fatigue is surprisingly poor; half those seen in general practice with fatigue are still fatigued six months later.

    Distribution of the complaint of fatigue in the population

    Causes of fatigue

    The physiological and psychological mechanisms underlying subjective fatigue are poorly understood. Fatigue may rather be usefully regarded as a final common pathway for a variety of causal factors. …

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