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Investigating fatigue in primary care. BMJ 2010; 341:c4259 24 August 2010. A 48 year old teacher 2 month history of continuing tiredness unremarkable medical history no history of recent infection she denies unusual stress no weight loss. Clinical examination is normal 130/75

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Investigating fatigue in primary care

Investigating fatigue in primary care

BMJ 2010; 341:c4259

24 August 2010

A typical case

A 48 year old teacher

2 month history of continuing tiredness

unremarkable medical history

no history of recent infection

she denies unusual stress

no weight loss

Clinical examination is normal


regular pulse 70 per minute

no lymphadenopathy

A typical case?

The problem
The problem

  • Fatigue can be normal, but can be a symptom of serious disease

  • 2nd commonest complaint in primary care.

  • 5-7% patients attending primary care

  • Proportion of patients presenting with fatigue as an additional complaint is nearly three times as high

  • Almost 75% of consultations for fatigue are isolated episodes, with no follow-up consultations (presumably because it improves)

  • Not surprising, therefore, that GPs perform investigations in only 50% patients complaining of fatigue and that few of these tests yield abnormal results.

  • Even so, lab tests for fatigue account for almost 5% of the total number of laboratory tests ordered by general practitioners.

The likelihood of finding a diagnosis

Diagnosis is made in less than 50% patients with fatigue

Many of the diagnoses are descriptive, such as stress

Precipitating factors

stressful life events – underlie 2/3 of fatigue complaints

work disputes,

family problems,

bereavement, or

financial difficulties

illnesses such as respiratory tract infections

Hypothyroidism and anaemia are identified in under 3% of patients

Other conditions, such as

Addison’s disease,

renal failure,

liver failure,

carbon monoxide poisoning,

coeliac disease,


domestic abuse,

sleep apnoea

are all rare.

The likelihood of finding a diagnosis

History examination

After the initial history taking,

ask questions about the main organ systems,

bleeding (menorrhagia, gastrointestinal),

gastrointestinal symptoms,

urinary symptoms (including polyuria and polydipsia),

quality and length of sleep

recent infections,

joint pains or swelling, and

mental health problems including



stressful events, and


Medications – prescribed, OTC for iatrogenic fatigue and

ask specifically about alcohol consumption.

Examine the patient, including

urine analysis and

blood pressure measurement.

Patients with Addison’s disease may have

postural hypotension, as well as

increased pigmentation.

History & examination

sleep apnoea is characterised by episodes of night-time breathlessness, daytime sleepiness, and often snoring

Rational investigation
Rational investigation

  • most patients could forgo testing and improve spontaneously

  • the few patients with underlying disease identified reasonably quickly

    Patients less likely to have underlying disease:

  • younger patients

  • those who consult frequently

    Testing could be deferred in those with

  • recent infection

  • recent stressful events

    Use of time in diagnosis (as well as in treatment)- probably wise to offer a specific time for review rather than a vague “return if you don’t improve.”

    Take action accordingly when red flag symptoms or signs are detected

Red flags
Red flags

  • Weight loss

  • Lymphadenopathy (such as a lymph node that is non-tender, firm, hard, >2 cm in diameter, progressively enlarging, supraclavicular, or axillary)

  • Any other features of malignancy (such as haemoptysis, dysphagia, rectal bleeding, breast lump, postmenopausal bleeding)

  • Focal neurological signs

  • Features of inflammatory arthritis, vasculitis, or connective tissue disease

  • Features of cardiorespiratory disease

  • Sleep apnoea

Investigations who and why
Investigations – who and why

  • for those who have not recovered at about 4 weeks

  • may be warranted at presentation if this is atypical (an older patient or a patient who consults infrequently)

  • if clinical features suggest a diagnosis (such as polyuria and polydipsia).

  • clinical intuition also useful: the “art of general practice” is in noting a slightly unusual presentation from knowledge of the individual.

First line investigations
First-line investigations

targeted at picking up the relatively common diagnoses

1 RCT suggests Hb, ESR, glucose, and TSH almost as useful diagnostically as a more extensive set of tests.

1 study of fatigue complaints in primary care found abnormalities of blood glucose more often than anaemia or hypothyroidism (does mild hyperglycaemia cause fatigue?).

NICE recommends testing for coeliac disease in people with persistent fatigue, even when no other suggestive symptoms are present.

Depending on the circumstances, additional first-line tests may be appropriate.

If first line tests are normal
If first line tests are normal

watchful waiting

At 3 months (from onset) or if further suggestive symptoms have developed, -> 2nd line of testing

At 4 months (without a clear explanation) a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome should be considered.

Referral may be indicated if the patient or doctor continues to be concerned.

Key messages
Key messages

  • Tiredness is a common complaint, reported in 5-7% of general practice encounters

  • Investigations may exclude diagnosis and reassure the patient, but they have a low rate of identifying any underlying disease

  • Investigations are warranted in those who have not recovered after one month or whose initial presentation is atypical or is associated with “red flag” symptoms

  • Be alert for important but easily missed conditions such as carbon monoxide poisoning, coeliac disease, pregnancy, and sleep apnoea

  • Further evidence is needed to establish best practice in the investigation of the tired patient


In this case, as the patient has no red flag or suggestive symptoms and no abnormal findings, the likely temporary nature of the fatigue is discussed, together with some of the possible common precipitating factors. She is happy with a plan to return after one month for routine blood tests (full blood count, thyroid function tests, and erythrocyte sedimentation rate and viscosity) if things have not improved. In fact, she attends a couple of months later for a different problem and comments that her fatigue has improved, probably as she has resolved a difficulty at work.