BY ADRIENNE DELLWO
Updated August 23, 2012
Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com’s Medical Review Board.
Brain fog (also called fibro fog or cognitive dysfunction) is one of the most common complaints of people with fibromyalgia (FMS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS or ME/CFS). For many, it can be severe and can have just as big an impact on their lives as pain or fatigue. In fact, some people say brain fog is more of a disability than their physical symptoms.
What Causes Brain Fog?
We don’t yet know exactly what causes cognitive dysfunction in these conditions, but we have a lot of theories about possible contributing factors, including:
Lack of restorative sleep
Abnormal cranial blood flow or volume
Premature brain aging
Mental distraction due to pain
In FMS, brain fog generally is worse when pain is worse. In both FMS and ME/CFS, it can be exacerbated when you’re anxious, rushed, or dealing with sensory overload.
Depression, which is common in FMS and ME/CFS, also is associated with cognitive dysfunction. Some studies, however, show that the severity of brain fog is not correlated with depression symptoms.
A lot of common medications for FMS and ME/CFS can contribute to brain fog as well.
Brain Fog Symtoms
Symptoms of brain fog can range from mild to severe. They frequently vary from day to day, and not everyone has all of them. Symptoms include:
Word use & recall: Difficulty recalling known words, use of incorrect words, slow recall of names.
Short-term memory problems: Forgetfulness, inability to remember what’s read or heard.
Directional disorientation: Not recognizing familiar surroundings, easily becoming lost, having trouble recalling where things are.
Multitasking difficulties: Inability to pay attention to more than one thing, forgetfulness of original task when distracted.
Confusion & trouble concentrating: Trouble processing information, easily distracted.
Math/number difficulties: Difficulty performing simple math, remembering sequences, transposing numbers, trouble remembering numbers.
Some people may also have other types of cognitive dysfunction.
Brain Fog & Learning Disorders
So far, we don’t have evidence that our brain fog comes from known learning disorders. However, our problems are similar to those associated with disorders such as dyslexia (reading problems), dysphasia (speaking problems) and dyscalculia (math/time/spatial problems).
If you believe you could have a recognized learning disorder, talk to your doctor. A diagnosis could help you get reasonable accommodation at work or strengthen a disability benefits claim.
Treating Brain Fog
For some people, brain fog resolves with effective treatment for pain or sleep problems. (See Treating Fibromyalgia and Treating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for information on treatment options.)
However, not everyone can find effective treatments, which leaves many of us trying to manage brain fog.