Researchers Study Chronic Illness and Its Relationship to Fatigue

Posted: December 17, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

woman sleeping
Researchers at Mason’s Center for the Study of Chronic Illness and Disability have found that fatigue is a common complaint for those who suffer from chronic illness.

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Fatigue is one of the most common health complaints, particularly of those suffering from a chronic illness. For this reason, Lynn Gerber and her team of researchers at the Center for the Study of Chronic Illness and Disability have chosen it as a unifying theme for the center’s work.

Naomi Gerber
Naomi Gerber
Photo by Evan Cantwell

“If you were to interview people with a chronic illness, they will tell you that they suffer from fatigue. And by suffer, they mean they notice it interferes with their normal, customary and desired activities,” says Gerber, who directs the center within the College of Health and Human Services (CHHS).

The scope of the center’s research ranges from focusing on physiological problems such as the ways in which inflammation or cortisol levels affect fatigue in certain populations to examining quality of life and satisfaction with health care issues.

Before coming to Mason to start the center, Gerber, a physician, served as chief of the Rehabilitation Medicine Department at the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health. She is board certified in internal medicine, rheumatology and physical medicine and rehabilitation. Her clinical expertise includes rehabilitation of patients with rheumatic diseases and cancer, management of children with musculoskeletal syndromes and foot and ankle management.

Treating Fatigue as a Disability

“Take any chronic illness — diabetes, asthma, heart disease — and you will find that fatigue is the hallmark of those illnesses, and we rarely treat fatigue,” says Gerber. “We treat the disease. And we say, well, if we treat the disease, everything else is going to go away, but that is not the case. The goal of this undertaking is to begin to consider that the disability is something we may want to treat separately from the illness.”

By disability, Gerber means the effect of biological, anatomical and physiological abnormalities on a person’s activities and how that corresponds with his or her individual needs.

To try to get to the root of fatigue, the researchers are developing questionnaires to collect information that will allow them to quantify and measure the impact of fatigue on patients’ lives. The hope is that they can identify the impairments resulting from fatigue and help restore patients to full function.

To accomplish her goals, Gerber has brought together an interdisciplinary team that includes Randall Keyser, an expert in exercise physiology and experimental medicine, and Ali Weinstein, who has extensive experience conducting biobehavior experiments in the laboratory and the field.

The center also has partnerships with Mason’s Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering and the College of Science.

“The research is highly collaborative. We are not the kind of people who sit in an office and look at data sets,” Gerber says. “We need to be in clinics. We need to pull people together from a whole variety of backgrounds. And, we have to be able to create a new way of thinking about these things based on objective information that identifies risk factors for disability.”

Cancer and Fatigue

One of Gerber’s current research projects involves cancer-related fatigue. Working with Angela Corriveau, a graduate student in social work, and Jarek Pietrzykowski from CHHS’s Center for Discovery Science and Health Informatics, Gerber is studying women with breast cancer to examine how their levels of fatigue correlate with their type of tumor, their ability to function and other biological factors.

“I am trying to understand who gets fatigue,” Gerber says. “If you have 100 women coming into your breast cancer clinic, which ones are going to be the ones you worry about?”

And it isn’t just about making patients feel better, although quality-of-life issues are also important to Gerber’s team. Women with cancer who experience certain abnormalities with their lipids and develop metabolic syndromes, such as fatigue, are more likely to have their cancer recur. The prognosis for these patients is also not as good as for others.

“This is a fairly widespread problem,” Gerber says. “If you were to take the entire population of cancer patients, the estimate is that more than 60 percent of them at some time during the course of their illness will have this syndrome, which is significant and has metabolic consequences. So it is this link that we are particularly interested in studying.”

Gerber’s group also has a grant from the National Science Foundation that supports its research on haptic technologies. This project is being done in collaboration with computer scientist Zoran Duric and his graduate students in the Volgenau School.

“To do rehabilitation research, you have to have multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary collaborations,” says Gerber. “One of the good things about Mason is that people here are always curious.”

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