It’s no fun when you can’t think the way you normally think. Brain fog is a frustrating condition brought on by many different conditions and even treatments for certain diseases! Whether you know it as chemo fog, fibro fog, pain fog or some other name brain fog is a real issue for many people.
Since my spinal cord injury in 2000 and Mr. Comfortable’s cancer diagnosis in late 2014 we’ve been dealing with brain fogs. And having two of us with some cognitive issues is really challenging! First we had to discover that our problems didn’t mean we were getting early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Then we had to find out what the heck was causing all the trouble.
There are many conditions that can cause the kind of cognitive impairments Mr. C and I deal with these days. If you suffer from brain fog there are things you should know and things you can do.
Also known as chemotherapy-related cognitive impairment is common among cancer survivors. Although doctors are reluctant to name chemotherapy drugs as the sole cause of this condition the frustrating and debilitating effects are all too real.
- Being unusually disorganized
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty finding the right word
- Difficulty learning new skills
- Feeling mental fogginess
- Short attention span
- Short term memory issues
- Requiring longer times to complete routine tasks
- Trouble with verbal memory (such as remembering conversations)
- Trouble with visual memory (such as recalling an image)
Doctors sometimes blame the stress of a cancer diagnosis or the chemicals produced by certain cancers for the condition. But chemotherapy, hormone therapy, immunotherapy, radiation therapy, stem cell transplant, and surgeries are high on the suspect list of causes.
Additionally fatigue, anemia, infection, hormonal changes brought on by treatments, insomnia caused by cancer and/or treatments, and pain are all complications that can result in chemo fog. And chemotherapy delivered directly to the central nervous system, whole brain radiation, higher doses of chemo and/or radiation, and radiation directly to the brain increase the risk of chemo fog.
Some people are so affected by this condition are unable to return to work after treatment for cancer. They are forced to try to survive on Social Security Disability benefits. Others can return to work but require occupational therapy or a change in career.
The current recommendations are that the person affected by chemo fog work with his or her doctor to control some of the things that may be causing the condition. Anemia, early menopause from treatments, and other factors can be addressed to help lessen the severity of chemo fog.
Additionally, patients can use repetitive brain exercises to help repair the “broken circuits” that contribute to chemo fog. Memory and thinking games and challenges are helpful. Another consideration is what exacerbates chemo fog. Hunger, fatigue, and stress can worsen the condition and knowing what triggers it will help you avoid the worst of it. Most patients have to learn coping strategies like making notes; sometimes even for tasks that the person was able to complete easily before treatment.
At this time there is no medication approved to treat chemo fog. Your doctor may prescribe medications that have been approved for other conditions like Ritalin (used to treat ADD), Donepezil (used for Alzheimer’s patients), and Memantine (used to improve memory in Alzheimer’s patients).
Currently there is no approved alternative medicine for the condition. Although some people try ginkgo or vitamin E further study is needed to determine if these are any help at all.
Fibro Fog & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Fog
Just like chemo fog, fibro fog and CFS fog cause difficulty with memory, conversation, learning, and daily tasks. Some people describe it as feeling as if they’re constantly taking cold medication. Patients have trouble holding conversations, remembering simple things, and don’t feel alert. The symptoms are pretty much the same as for chemo fog.
Although cognitive difficulties are often been thought of as “all in a patient’s head” a study in 2015 published in Arthritis Care and Research found that fibro fog is a real issue. But the causes of the cognitive changes are still unclear.
Since Fibromyalgia and CFS patients have sleep disturbances treating poor sleep is a first step. Doctors recommend increasing activity during the day (as much as possible) and often prescribe amitriptyline to ensure a level of restorative sleep is reached.
A study conducted on Fibromyalgia patients showed that, from time to time, patients don’t get enough oxygen in different parts of their brains. Another possible explanation is that part of the nervous system is working improperly causing changes in the brain’s blood vessels.
Although a 2013 review in Current Pain and Headache Reports confirms that the causes of fibro fog are still undetermined, patients can see some cognitive improvement. Patients achieve this using a combination of physical activity, cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication.
Chronic pain actually changes the brain. Functional MRI’s found that a front region of the brain mostly associated with emotion is constantly active. These areas do not shut off when they should which exhausts neurons and disturbs that balance of the brain as a whole.
Pain disturbs sleep so often chronic pain patients have named it “painsomnia.” Chronic can cause depression and is physically exhausting. While pain medications can offer some relief the unrelenting nature of chronic pain is debilitating. In addition to treating the underlying condition that causes the pain doctors can help with the symptoms that are actually caused by the pain itself.
Pain medications are almost always prescribed for conditions causing chronic pain. antidepressants are also prescribed. For certain conditions some anti-seizure medications can be helpful. Sleep medications are commonly prescribed as well.
Depending on the cause of the chronic pain doctors may suggest some form of exercise to help with blood flow and prevent stiffness. Water exercise is often suggested as the water helps support the body.
No matter what the cause of brain fog there are some things you can do to improve the condition.
Get enough sleep. Fatigue contributes to brain fog. If needed, your doctor can prescribe a sleep medication.
Be sure to exercise. Movement can help many of the conditions that result in brain fog. Don’t overdo it but try to move as much as you can.
Work your brain. Doing puzzles, word games, and memory games will help with your cognitive functioning.
Stay organized. Make notes for yourself to help you remember. Keep things in their place. If you always leave you keys in a dish by the door they won’t be so easily misplaced. Maintain a calendar so you don’t forget important dates, even if you never had trouble before.
Don’t overdo things. Doing too much on good days, especially for those who suffer from painful conditions will only make the brain fog worse. Pain and fatigue are not helpful when trying to combat brain fog.
Maintain a healthy lifestyle for body and mind. Eat a healthy diet, avoid smoking, and over-consumption of caffeine. Find a hobby you enjoy and pursue it. Make time to be with family and friends when you’re feeling up to it.
Work with your doctor. Be sure to tell you doctor about your brain fog and the things that seem to trigger serious episodes. There are things he or she can do to help.