Almost everyone who has multiple sclerosis (MS) also has fatigue. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS), around 80 percent of those diagnosed with the condition will experience fatigue at some point during the course of the disease. However, the exact cause of MS-related fatigue remains unknown.
Before learning how to beat fatigue, it’s useful to understand the types of fatigue you may face when you have MS. Researchers have started to identify a number of distinct characteristics associated specifically with MS that make it quite different from garden-variety tiredness, such as:
- Onset: It can begin suddenly.
- Frequency: It often occurs every day.
- Time of day: It can occur in the morning, despite having slept the night before.
- Progression: It commonly worsens throughout the day.
- Heat-sensitive: Heat and humidity may aggravate it.
- Severity: It tends to be more severe than other types of fatigue.
- Effect on activities: It is more likely than regular fatigue to disrupt ability to perform everyday tasks.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, regular physical activity can help fight fatigue related to MS. Sticking with a consistent exercise program can help with endurance, balance, weight loss, and general well-being—all important for people struggling with. However, one caveat: while exercise helps some people with MS, there are others with the condition who won’t experience the same benefit. If in doubt, talk to your doctor before starting any kind of new fitness program—and remember that the goal of exercise is to give you more energy, not make you feel more tired.
Energy conservation isn’t just important for the environment, it’s also a key principle for those with MS. What’s your best time of day to get things done—the time when you feel the most energetic? If you notice that you feel less fatigue in the morning, then take advantage of your extra energy to take care of tasks like shopping and cleaning. You can also conserve energy and recharge your batteries simply by taking a nap.
While some medicines including aspirin can help with fatigue management, the Cleveland Clinic recommends avoiding using medicines to treat tiredness. This is because as an MS patient, you may already be taking other medications, and it’s best to limit the number of drugs that you take when possible.
If you’re taking medicines for other symptoms, check their side effects to ensure that they aren’t adding to your fatigue. Talk to your doctor about each medicine that you take, and work together to determine whether those that cause fatigue can be eliminated.
MS patients may be especially sensitive to heat. As a result, they may experience more fatigue when they’re in a warmer environment or become overheated. Try these techniques to cool down:
- Use air conditioning as needed, especially in the summer months.
- Wear a cooling vest.
- Take a cool shower.
- Jump in a swimming pool.
- Drink icy beverages.
- Wear lightweight clothes.
If your own lifestyle changes don’t give you the energy boost that you need, you may want to try occupational or physical therapy. In occupational therapy, a trained specialist helps you to simplify activities in your work or home environments. This may involve using adaptive equipment or changing the environment to help increase physical and mental energy. In physical therapy, a trained professional helps you more effectively perform daily physical tasks—for example, using techniques or devices that may help you to conserve energy while walking.
Sleep problems are often behind the fatigue that people with MS experience. Whether you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting the amount and type of sleep you need to awaken feeling refreshed, the result is the same: you’ll feel tired.
To prevent these problems, it’s important to regulate your sleep. This might involve identifying and treating other symptoms of MS that cause sleep problems—for example, urinary dysfunction. If all else fails, you might talk with your doctor about using sleep medications for a short period of time.
Certain behaviors may seem to help with fatigue, but in the end may cause more problems than they solve. While drinking a hot beverage may sound like a good way to wind down if you’re having trouble sleeping, if your drink contains caffeine as is common in coffee or tea, you may be prevented from falling asleep, which can lead to fatigue the next day.
Similarly, while alcohol may help you feel sleepy after you first drink it, it can later make it harder to get a restful night’s sleep. Review your behaviors that may be contributing to poor sleep habits and fatigue, and take measures to stop them.
Fatigue from MS can wreak havoc on your life for many reasons, both at work and home. It may severely limit the types of activities you choose, and may even result in having to leave your job. So it’s worth it to learn how to manage the fatigue caused by MS. If in doubt about which tips are right for you, talk to your doctor for guidance.