General Weakness Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

Understand general weakness symptoms, including 10 causes & common questions.

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Contents

  1. Symptoms
  2. Causes
  3. 10 Possible General Weakness Conditions
  4. Treatments and Relief
  5. Real-Life Stories
  6. FAQs
  7. Questions Your Doctor May Ask
  8. Statistics
  9. Related Articles
  10. References

General Weakness Symptoms

Weakness is the overall sensation of having no strength in the muscles. Even temporary weakness can indicate a serious condition, and persistent weakness can also be a cause for concern, resulting in problems with movement and activities of daily living. If weakness does not resolve on its own and progresses far enough, you may be left unable to work or to live on your own [1].

General weakness is always a symptom of some other condition. It may be only temporary, or acute, or it can be a sign of serious illness that must be addressed [1,2].

"General weakness" is also called all-over weakness.

Common characteristics of general weakness

General weakness can be described by the following details:

  • Location: You will experience weakness in the voluntary muscles of the body, especially in the arms and legs.
  • Difficulty with functioning: General weakness may lead to difficulty walking and performing almost any task.

Common accompanying symptoms of general weakness

These are commonly found along with general weakness [2].

Duration of symptoms

General weakness may be temporary or more long-term.

  • Acute form: In the acute form, weakness seems to happen suddenly. This can be the first sign of a serious incident such as a stroke, a heart attack, or severe dehydration, so do not wait to see if it goes away.
  • Chronic form: In the chronic form, the weakness begins gradually but gets progressively worse. This may be an early symptom of a serious illness and should not be ignored.

Who is most often affected?

Women often experience general weakness as an early symptom of stroke or heart attack [3,5].

Is general weakness serious?

General weakness may vary in severity depending on the cause.

  • Not serious: Dehydration or loss of electrolytes can be easily resolved, but must be addressed quickly to prevent the condition from becoming more serious.
  • Moderately serious: Pain from chronic illnesses or injuries can cause you to want to avoid exercise and move as little as possible, eventually leading to weakened and de-conditioned muscles.
  • Serious: Sudden weakness, or weakness the steadily grows worse, can be a symptom of a serious illness, a stroke, or a heart attack.

General Weakness Causes

Many conditions can cause the symptom of general weakness. We've listed several different causes here, in approximate order from most to least common.

Overexertion

General weakness may ensue after overexertion due to the following [1]:

  • Exercise: A workout that is more intense than usual, a longer-than-normal hike, or abnormally hard physical work such as cleaning out a garage or moving to a new home can cause the muscles to become exhausted and feel very weak all over.
  • Electrolyte imbalance: This is caused by a loss of minerals due to heavy sweating, usually during exercise.
  • Dehydration: This can result from not drinking enough water, especially while sweating from exercise.

Medications

Certain types of medication can lead to general weakness [3-5].

  • Chemotherapy drugs
  • AIDS drugs: This includes those given for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
  • Bipolar disorder drugs

Viral infections

Viral infections often cause feelings of extreme weakness among their other symptoms, such as fever and headache.

Hormone imbalance

Thyroid hormone imbalances, either too high or too low, can cause feelings of overall weakness and exhaustion.

Chronic pain

Pain in the joints and muscles of the legs, no matter what the cause, can lead to reluctance to exercise or even move very much at all. The muscles can soon become substantially weakened.

Rare and unusual causes

Rare and unusual causes of general weakness may include:

  • Neuromuscular diseases and syndromes: These are rare disorders that always include some degree of muscle weakness as a symptom. Some types cause progressive general weakness that can advance to complete paralysis.
  • Cancer: Severe, progressive muscle pain and weakness can be an early symptom of several different forms of cancer [6].

We've listed some specific conditions that can cause general weakness, along with how to identify each of them.

10 Possible General Weakness Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced general weakness. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Folate (vitamin) deficiency

Folate is also called folic acid or vitamin B9. It is needed to create red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body. A shortage of folate leads to a shortage of healthy red blood cells, which is also called anemia.

Folate deficiency can be caused by poor diet; alcohol use; some medications; diseases of the large intestine; and pregnancy, since the growing baby requires folate in larger amounts.

Symptoms include severe fatigue; loss of appetite; diarrhea; paleness; sore tongue; and irritability. The same symptoms can appear in other conditions, especially blood disorders.

Folate deficiency is also a cause of abnormal brain and spine development in a fetus. For these reasons, it is very important to see a medical provider if these symptoms occur.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, blood tests, and sometimes digestive tract studies.

Treatment involves immediate supplementation of folate with injections, followed by folate and other vitamin and mineral tablets; improvement in diet; and treating any underlying digestive or blood disorder.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, depressed mood, irritability, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea

Symptoms that never occur with folate (vitamin) deficiency: abdominal swelling

Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit

Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism, or "underactive thyroid," means that the thyroid gland in the neck does not produce enough of its hormones. This causes a slowing of the body's metabolism.

The condition can occur due to autoimmune disease; any surgery or radiation treatment to the thyroid gland; some medications; pregnancy; or consuming too much or too little iodine. It is often found among older women with a family history of the disease.

Common symptoms include fatigue, constantly feeling cold, weight gain, slow heart rate, and depression. If left untreated, these and other symptoms can worsen until they lead to very low blood pressure and body temperature, and even coma.

Diagnosis is made through a simple blood test.

Hypothyroidism is easily managed with daily oral medication. The patient usually starts feeling better after a couple of weeks and may even lose some extra weight. It's important for the patient to be monitored by a doctor and have routine blood testing so that the medication can be kept at the correct levels.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, weight gain, muscle aches

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Myasthenia gravis (over 50)

Myasthenia Gravis is an autoimmune disease, where the immune system attacks the connection between nerves and muscles.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: weakness, general weakness, trouble swallowing, voice change, double vision

Urgency: In-person visit

Late onset hypogonadism

Late onset hypogonadism is also called LOH, androgen deficiency, or testosterone deficiency syndrome (TDS.)

It is a reduction in testosterone production sometimes found in men over 50. A small amount of loss is natural due to aging, but LOH causes symptoms that may be severe and can interfere with quality of life.

Testosterone is needed to maintain the male reproductive system, but it also influences many other functions including metabolism, bone density, muscle strength and formation, and clear thinking.

LOH is most often caused by a direct loss of functioning in the testicles due to the combination of aging and other illnesses, especially those which interfere with circulation such as obesity, diabetes, or heart disease.

It may also be due to malfunction in the hypothalamus and/or pituitary glands in the brain, which control hormone levels.

Symptoms include erectile dysfunction as well as a decrease in libido, muscle strength, and energy. Osteoporosis is also a risk.

Diagnosis is made through patient history and blood tests. Treatment involves testosterone replacement therapy, which usually has very positive effects.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fatigue, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping, depressed mood, irritability

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Guillain-barre syndrome

Guillain-Barre syndrome is a condition in which the body's immune system damages parts of neurons. Guillain-Barre syndrome usually occurs after an infection or other triggering event. It is believed that the event leads to an abnormal immune response in which the body...

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General Weakness Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your general weakness

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (als)

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is also called ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease named after the Hall of Fame baseball player whose career ended when he developed ALS. It is a degenerative disease that destroys nerve cells, which eventually ...

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New migraine

New, or new-onset, migraine means the person has never experienced a migraine headache before. A migraine is a one-sided headache that causes intense pain and throbbing due to blood vessels dilating in the brain.

The exact reason for new-onset migraine headache is not known, but a number of causes are being studied:

  • Pregnancy.
  • Soy isoflavone supplements, especially in men.
  • Use and overuse of certain medications.
  • Traumatic head injury.
  • Angioma, which is a cluster of dilated blood vessels in the brain.
  • A complication of surgery for some heart conditions.

Anyone with a sudden severe headache should be seen by a medical provider, so that a more serious cause can be ruled out. A transient ischemic attack, also known as TIA or mini-stroke, can have symptoms similar to a migraine but is far more serious.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and imaging such as a CT scan.

Treatment for migraine varies with the individual. Lifestyle changes may be recommended and there are a number of medications that may be tried.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: new headache, fatigue, nausea, mild headache, headache that worsens when head moves

Symptoms that always occur with new migraine: new headache

Symptoms that never occur with new migraine: fever, diarrhea, productive cough, headache resulting from a head injury

Urgency: Self-treatment

Multiple sclerosis (ms)

Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a disease of the central nervous system. The body's immune system attacks nerve fibers and their myelin covering. This causes irreversible scarring called "sclerosis," which interferes with the transmission of signals between the brain and the body.

The cause is unknown. It may be connected to a genetic predisposition. The disease usually appears between ages 20 to 50 and is far more common in women than in men. Other risk factors include family history; viral infections such as Epstein-Barr; having other autoimmune diseases; and smoking.

Symptoms include numbness or weakness in arms, legs, or body; partial or total loss of vision in one or both eyes; tingling or shock-like sensation, especially in the neck; tremor; and loss of coordination.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, neurological examination, blood tests, MRI, and sometimes a spinal tap.

There is no cure for MS, but treatment with corticosteroids and plasma exchange (plasmapheresis) can slow the course of the disease and manage symptoms for better quality of life.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: severe fatigue, constipation, numbness, decreased sex drive, signs of optic neuritis

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Iron deficiency anemia

Iron deficiency anemia is a condition in which the body does not have enough iron to form hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body.

The condition can be caused by acute blood loss through injury, surgery, or childbirth;chronic b...

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Chronic fatigue syndrome

CFS is a chronic, debilitating condition of extreme fatigue that persists for more than six months and results in a substantially lower level of occupational, educational, or social functioning than experienced prior.

It is characterized by fatigue that worsens wi...

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General Weakness Treatments and Relief

As long as your weakness is not incredibly severe or associated with other serious symptoms, treatment can begin at home. If your general weakness persists or worsens, you should consult your physician.

At-home treatment

Various at-home remedies may help alleviate your general weakness.

  • Avoid excessive bed rest: This can only lead to further weakening of the muscles.
  • Exercise: Do mild exercises and stretching daily, even if in bed.
  • Walk: Walk at least a short distance each day. Ask a family member for assistance if you need it.
  • Hydrate and pace yourself: When doing demanding physical work, training, or sports, be sure to drink plenty of water and electrolyte replacements, such as sports drinks (try to find ones low in sugar). Stop and rest before working to exhaustion.

When to see a doctor

General weakness that progressively increases should be discussed with your medical provider. He or she may discuss physical therapy with you in order to help strengthen muscles. If your weakness is due to an underlying condition, medication use, or stroke, your physician will evaluate you for appropriate treatments.

When it is an emergency

If you experience the following symptoms, seek immediate treatment [1,2].

  • There is a sudden and severe increase in weakness: All-over weakness can be a symptom of heart attack or stroke, especially in women. Weakness on only one side of the body in anyone can be a symptom of a stroke or transient ischemic attack. Severe weakness in only one part of the body may indicate spinal cord damage.
  • There is a change in mental status along with the weakness: These changes may include confusion, disorientation, or a loss of consciousness.
  • There is pain that worsens

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FAQs About General Weakness

Are weakness and fatigue the same thing?

No. Medically, they are not the same. Weakness is simply a lack of physical strength in the muscles. Fatigue is more of a mental feeling of tiredness and lack of energy, though the muscles still work normally. Fatigue is caused by many different illnesses; many different types of medications; by overwork or overtraining; and by severe anxiety and depression.

Does anemia cause general weakness?

Like general weakness, anemia is actually a symptom of some other condition and is not an illness in itself. Anemia means there is a shortage of red blood cells and, therefore, a shortage of oxygen being carried throughout the body. This leads to fatigue (tiredness) but not specifically to muscle weakness [7].

Does pregnancy cause general weakness?

Fatigue is a well-known symptom of pregnancy, especially early pregnancy; however, fatigue is not the same thing as muscle weakness (general weakness). If a pregnant woman is suffering from actual weakness and not just fatigue, it is important for her to get to a medical provider as soon as possible for testing and appropriate treatment [8].

Does general weakness cause other illnesses, such as depression or even paralysis?

No. General weakness is always a symptom of some other condition and not an illness in itself. It does not, and cannot, cause other physical illnesses such as paralysis. However, depression can easily be a side effect of coping with general weakness even though the weakness is caused by something else.

Is general weakness a symptom of fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is an autoimmune disorder, which means the body attacks its own systems. Fibromyalgia causes chronic pain along with stiffness and severe fatigue but is not known to directly cause muscle weakness (which is actually what happens in general weakness). However, reluctance to exercise due to pain can lead to severe loss of conditioning and the sensation of weakness.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About General Weakness

To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:

  • Have you ever been diagnosed with cancer?
  • Has any part of your body become paler than normal?
  • Are you feeling irritable (easily made upset)?
  • Are you currently taking folic acid?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions

Please take a quiz to find out what might be causing your general weakness. These questions are also covered.

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General Weakness Symptom Checker Statistics

People who have experienced general weakness have also experienced:

  • 15% Fatigue
  • 3% Loss Of Muscle Mass
  • 3% Headache

People who have experienced general weakness were most often matched with:

  • 50% Myasthenia Gravis (Over 50)
  • 30% Hypothyroidism
  • 20% Folate (Vitamin) Deficiency

Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from Buoy Assistant (a.k.a. the quiz).

General Weakness Symptom Checker

Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your general weakness

References

  1. Blahd WH, Romito K, Thompson EG, Husney A. Weakness and fatigue. C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Updated November 20, 2017. C.S. Mott Children's Hospital Link
  2. Weakness. American Cancer Society. Updated June 8, 2015. American Cancer Society Link
  3. What is cancer-related fatigue? American Cancer Society. Updated October 22, 2018. American Cancer Society Link
  4. HIV treatment. UCSF Health. UCSF Health Link
  5. Aripiprazole (oral route). Mayo Clinic. Updated October 1, 2018. Mayo Clinic Link
  6. Min KJ, Ouh YT, Hong HR, So KA, Hong JH, Lee JK. Muscle weakness and myalgia as the initial presentations of serous ovarian carcinoma: A case report. Journal of Ovarian Research. 2014;7:43. NCBI Link
  7. Horwitz L. Ironing out the problems with anemia. Cleveland Clinic. Published June 25, 2012. Cleveland Clinic Link
  8. Pregnancy: Am I pregnant? Cleveland Clinic. Updated September 2, 2014. Cleveland Clinic Link

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