Dr. Thomas Harrell never gets tired of researching the issue of chronic fatigue, a problem that may plague an estimated 12 percent of working-age adults in the United States. Chronic fatigue increases with age, since approximately 32 percent of older adults suffer from the functional impairment of chronic issue such as rheumatoid arthritis. Studies estimate that anywhere from 42 to 80 percent of these individuals are trying to cope with a degree of fatigue that negatively impacts their lives. The numbers will only increase in coming years, said Harrell.
“As the large wave of baby boomers arrive, there are going to be that many more people with these issues,” he said.
Harrell, who has lived with chronic fatigue for two decades, knows first-hand how debilitating and life-changing the condition can be. For six years, the director of Florida Tech’s Fatigue Management Institute has studied ways patients can minimize the impact of chronic fatigue.
Chronic fatigue is completely different from the exhaustion caused by increased physical activity or lack of sleep. Reducing exertion or increasing sleep usually controls normal fatigue, but chronic fatigue, on the other hand, does not respond to rest and is unrelated to activity level. Sufferers slog through their days in a haze of exhaustion that never lifts. The fatigue negatively impacts day-to-day existence for an extended period of time.
Primary care physicians, often in a quandary on how to deal with the problem, have little ammunition to fight the problem.
“It is a difficult symptom for medical professionals to address,” said Harrell.
“We don’t know what causes it, so we have limited options to treat it. It is one of the least understood afflictions. It is such an unpredictable phenomenon.”
The need to rule out other symptoms, plus the limited medication options available for treatment, can make treatment of chronic fatigue frustrating for both doctor and patient.
Harrell’s research-based behavioral modification intervention has proved effective in reducing fatigue levels and improving participants’ quality of life. Local health providers have been encouraged to refer patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, multiple sclerosis and other chronic illnesses to the Institute’s free self-management courses.
The core of the program focuses on providing participants with tools to make them feel in control of their fatigue.
“People tend to make a lot of mistakes when dealing with chronic fatigue,” said Harrell.
“They try to adapt to chronic fatigue as if it were exertion, but that is simply not effective. We try to help them understand that chronic fatigue may not be curable, but it is manageable.”
The classes, developed with input from a national survey on chronic fatigue and chronic medical conditions, focus on developing important behavioral strategies, such as prioritizing activities.
“Individuals with chronic fatigue often make efforts to be as active as possible, but feel they only have enough energy to do things they think they have to do rather than the things that are enjoyable to them,” said Harrell.
“That leaves them with a sense of “what’s the point?” and increases depression. We teach them to balance their schedule to include activities they want to do. Even though we can’t eliminate fatigue, we can teach people to better manage it.”
Learn more about Florida Tech’s clinical psychology program.