Worn out or worn down? How to tell the difference between tiredness and fatigue


(BPT) - Have you ever felt like no amount of coffee or rest can shake off your lingering exhaustion? Do you wake up from a full night’s sleep and still find yourself dragging? If so, you might be dealing with more than just tiredness; you could be experiencing fatigue. Fatigue is not just a fleeting feeling of sleepiness — it’s a deep-seated exhaustion that can impact your daily life and point to more serious health conditions. However, these feelings are often dismissed as simply needing more sleep or seen as a normal part of a busy lifestyle. According to recent research by MD Live, an Evernorth company and leading virtual care provider, many aren’t aware of what fatigue is despite experiencing symptoms and 35% rarely think about the reasons behind their tiredness.

"While we often use words like 'tired' and 'exhausted' interchangeably, there are distinct and clinical differences between tiredness and fatigue," explains Dr. Maggie Williams, medical director for MD Live Primary Care. "Occasional tiredness can often be managed with better sleep habits or lifestyle changes, but fatigue is a persistent exhaustion that could signal underlying health issues that should be discussed with a doctor."

Dr. Williams shares telltale ways to determine whether you may be experiencing simple tiredness or if your symptoms might point to something more serious.

1. Scrutinize your sleep

First, look at your sleep patterns. Tiredness generally improves with a good night's sleep or a short nap, whereas fatigue persists even after adequate rest. Try keeping a sleep diary for a week, noting when you go to bed, when you wake up, and how you feel upon waking and throughout the day. If you consistently wake up feeling unrefreshed or have difficulty staying asleep, it might indicate something more serious. Pay attention to other signs like frequent waking during the night or difficulty falling asleep despite feeling tired.

2. Track your tiredness

Consider how long and how often you feel exhausted. Tiredness is typically temporary and linked to specific activities or lack of sleep, such as staying up late to finish a project or getting a poor night's sleep. Fatigue is long-lasting and occurs frequently, often without a clear cause. Ask yourself whether exhaustion is a constant presence in your life, lingering for weeks or months. If symptoms persist and you cannot pinpoint a specific reason, it’s more likely to be fatigue.

3. Be on the lookout for other symptoms

Fatigue often accompanies broader and more severe symptoms, such as muscle weakness, joint pain, headaches, and a lack of motivation. Mentally, fatigue can lead to prolonged mood swings, depression, anxiety, and severe cognitive impairment, making it difficult to concentrate or remember things. Keep track of any additional symptoms you experience, noting their severity and duration.

4. Gauge the impact on daily life

Reflect on how your tiredness affects your daily activities. Tiredness might cause a temporary decrease in productivity and social interactions. Fatigue has a significant and prolonged impact on your ability to perform daily tasks, work, and maintain social relationships. For example, you may find it increasingly difficult to keep up with work responsibilities, household chores, or social commitments. Evaluate how often you find yourself canceling plans, avoiding activities, or struggling to keep up with everyday demands.

5. Revamp your rest routine

To assess whether you may be dealing with fatigue, address sleep-related issues, including irregular sleep schedules, screen time before bed, and an uncomfortable sleep environment. Establish a regular and consistent sleep routine, even on the weekends. Avoid alcohol consumption, limit exposure to screens at least an hour before bedtime and create a comfortable sleep environment by ensuring your bedroom is dark, quiet and cool. If these changes don’t help, it could point to fatigue — persistent problems despite good sleep hygiene warrant further investigation.

The chronic condition connection

Fatigue is often linked to chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, depression and thyroid disorders. These illnesses significantly impact the body’s ability to maintain energy levels, resulting in persistent exhaustion that can negatively affect quality of life. According to the survey, one-third of respondents with chronic diseases experienced extreme tiredness but didn’t recognize it was a symptom before their diagnosis. Identifying and managing these conditions properly can help alleviate some of the overwhelming feelings of exhaustion.

When to consult a doctor

While you might be inclined to dismiss or brush off tiredness as not a priority, persistent problems are not something you have to live with. If sleep-related issues or extreme tiredness begin to affect your everyday life, you can schedule a virtual visit with an MD Live board-certified doctor to discuss your concerns. They can help identify the root cause of your symptoms, develop an effective treatment plan and recommend in-person follow-ups if necessary.

Remember, understanding and addressing the root causes of your tiredness can pave the way for improved well-being and a more energetic life.

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