Last Updated August 16th, 2019
Overview of Asthenia
Asthenia is a health condition characterized mainly by weakness and fatigue. A person suffering from asthenia often shows muscular weakness and a consistent lack of energy. It is caused mainly by environmental stress, certain clinical and psychological conditions. Occupational hazards and lifestyle trends may also aggravate this condition. All of these can take a serious toll on human health.
What is asthenia?
Asthenia is the weakness and fatigue that result from physical and mental stress. Overstress and existing medical conditions may aggravate this condition. It is also defined as an as the acute condition of energy deficiency within the body that is manifested as physical weakness.
Two major biological processes occur within the human body that determines the energy level of an individual. These are – anabolism (build-up of complex molecules from simpler ones within the body) and catabolism (breakdown of complex molecules into simpler ones within the body). Asthenia is an outcome of increased catabolism (destructive metabolism) and decreased anabolism (constructive metabolism). It is essentially a multi-dimensional syndrome that adversely impacts the quality of life.
What are the main causes of asthenia?
The common causes of asthenia are given below-
- Sleep disturbance: Disruption of the normal sleep-wake cycle may occur due to various factors like illnesses, aging, side-effects of certain medications, disturbed mental state or frequent international travel (change of time-zones within short periods). All of the above factors directly impact the Circadian rhythm of the body that regulates sleep-wake and day-night cycles.
- Aging: Natural degeneration of nerves occurs with age that leads to lack of proper relaxation during sleep or after any physical activity. If this condition persists for a long period of time, it may result in tiredness and asthenia.
- Diseases: Existing medical disorders such as fever, joint pain, gastrointestinal problems, cardiovascular disorders or respiratory problems may affect the musculoskeletal and Central Nervous System considerably, causing fatigue. Few sleep disorders such as insomnia (sleeplessness) or sleep apnea (breathlessness during sleep) may also contribute to fatigue.
- Occupational hazards: A few professions may demand extreme physical exertion on a daily basis. Examples of these occupations are- factory workers, construction-site labourers and engineers and chauffeurs. Some other occupations such as call-center jobs can permanently disrupt the sleep cycle. In addition to the above, monotonous jobs and extremely long working hours may also affect an individual mentally. All of these factors may cause mental or physical tiredness.
- Psychological factors: Abnormalities in psychomotor and cognitive functions may occur due to some medical conditions related to mental health (Eg: Depression, Schizophrenia). These lead to some inevitable conditions such as exhaustion, monotony and extreme lack of motivation. Any of the above factors may lead to disturbed mental state and fatigue.
- Medications: A few strong medications such as steroids and diuretics (used for high blood pressure) can impact other physiological mechanisms of the body and cause fatigue. Also, excessive alcohol consumption, tobacco smoking and intake of narcotics, cocaine or heroin on a regular basis may equally contribute to asthenia.
- Diet: Regular diet lacking essential vitamins like Vitamin C, Vitamin D and essential minerals like Sodium and Potassium may cause nutrient deficiency in the body and lead to fatigue. Low intake of fluids on a daily basis may lead to acute dehydration causing fatigue (since the body cells are not energized in this case).
What are the symptoms of asthenia?
Asthenia and sleeplessness are often confused with each other. Though the two share some common characteristics, they are two completely different phenomena. The following signs of asthenia can help distinguish it from similar conditions-
- Lack of energy and withdrawal from regular activities, especially the ones demanding physical exertion
- Feeling drowsy even after long hours of sleep
- Daytime drowsiness, sluggishness and nap
- Headache and unexplained malaise
- Not feeling refreshed throughout the day
- Loss of work-level productivity and performance
- Gastrointestinal disorders
- Nausea and vomiting
- Poor memory
- Impaired cognitive functions
- Loss of concentration and difficulty learning new things
- Difficulty performing regular activities such as walking, eating or travelling
- Frequent mood swings and mental instability
- Panic, anxiety and depression
- Loss of appetite
- Abnormal weight reduction
- Frequent yawning and inability to keep one’s eyes open
- Blurred vision (observed in aged people)
- Falling asleep during driving (may lead to serious accidents)
- Deterioration of quality of sleep
- Dizziness and convulsions (rare)
What are the different types of asthenia?
Asthenia may affect the body and the mind. Based on this, it can be classified into two categories-
- Physical asthenia: It refers to the inability of the body muscles to perform activities that demand some amount of physical exertion (Eg: Running, swimming, cycling, climbing stairs, jogging and physical exercise). It may result due to extreme physical exertion for a considerable period of time or due to natural degeneration of muscles with age. Both the conditions cause a feeling of physical exhaustion.
- Mental asthenia: It is defined as the sharp decline in cognitive activities such as learning, judgement or decision making. It is a result of extreme exertion on the cognitive center of the brain that leads to reduced neuronal activities for a short period of time. Mental fatigue can also occur due to age, presence of brain tumour or experiencing emotional trauma in the recent past.
Three other types of asthenia have also been identified recently. These are given below-
- Central: It is marked by a reduction in the neural drive or the nerve-based motor activities.
- Neuromuscular: Here, the nerve fails to stimulate a muscle.
- Peripheral muscle: The body fails to supply additional energy required by the contracting muscles.
What diagnostic tests can prove that you have asthenia?
The following laboratory examinations are essential-
- Complete Blood Count or CBC (to check for anaemia)
- Total protein and C-reactive protein
- Calcium, phosphorous and electrolyte count
- Albumin, globulin and creatinine
- Blood Urea Nitrogen (BUN)
Treatment and prevention
The treatment of asthenia mainly depends on the underlying cause. Pain-relieving medications such as NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) can be given. Asthenia due to stress-related neurotic disorders, sleep disorders etc. can be treated with the help of psychiatrists and therapists. Antidepressant medications are usually administered in chronic cases. In some cases, cognitive behavioral therapy does the trick.
Asthenia due to infections can be cured with the help of antibiotics. Corticosteroids, cyclosporine, and azathioprine are usually administered by doctors in cases of asthenia due to auto-immune disorders such as myasthenia gravis, gestational diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis etc. Nutrient supplements can sometimes be given in cases of asthenia due to iron, vitamin D, vitamin B12 or folic acid deficiency.
How many times have you envied your colleagues to be much more energetic and happier than you are? If you are one among the selected few people who are facing this problem, you are not alone, but in fact, it is a clear indication that you have an underlying health condition which may be pointing towards asthenia.
It is a syndrome where the process of catabolism (the breakdown of complex molecules) is at higher levels as compared to anabolism (accumulation of complex molecules). Numerous factors contribute to this and include aging, sleep disturbance, underlying disease, psychological stress, occupational hazards, medication side effects, as well as a dietary imbalance. Since fatigue and tiredness is the most prominent symptom associated with this syndrome, iron deficiency anemia may be the underlying cause. Studies have found that supplementing with iron-rich foods can improve the symptoms drastically.
Physical and occupational therapy might also help in certain cases. Prevention is mainly by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, following an exercise regime, intake of a balanced diet and sufficient sleep. Avoiding caffeine and alcohol is also important for the prevention of asthenia.
- Some famous personalities having myasthenia gravis are- David Niven, Aristotle Onassis, Sir Lawrence Olivier and many more.
- Around 20% of asthenia patients remain undiagnosed.
- The only muscle that never tires out is the heart. The average human heart beats 60 to 100 times in a minute pumping around 2500 gallons of blood in a day.
- To move one step forward, you have to use 200 muscles of the body.
- It takes 17 muscles to smile and 43 to frown.
- Muscles make up around 40% of the total body weight.
- The strongest muscle in the body (based on its size) is the jaw muscle –masseter. It can close the jaw with a force as strong as 200 pounds on the molars.
- In an hour of reading, the eye muscles make approximately 10,000 coordinated movements.
- Muscle contraction is the source of approximately 85% of the heat generated in the human body.
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Dos and Don'ts
- Take iron supplements in case the weakness is due to anemia or blood loss. In severe cases of anemia, a blood transfusion will be required through an intravenous line.
- Drink plenty of fluids if the weakness is due to dehydration.
- Consult your doctor and get the underlying health conditions diagnosed.
- Ignore dangerous symptoms like light-headedness, dizziness, slurred speech, confusion, breathing difficulty, vision changes etc.
- Consume dry and hard foodstuff so as to reduce the residue left in the throat.
- Eat foodstuff with mixed consistency (such as cereal with milk, salad with juice etc.) so as avoid aspiration (accidentally going into lungs) of food.
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