Concentration Difficulty

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What is concentration difficulty?

Concentration difficulty is a decreased ability to focus your thoughts on something. Concentration difficulties can be related to difficulty staying awake, impulsiveness, intrusive thoughts or concerns, overactivity, or inattention. They can be caused by medical, cognitive or psychological problems or may be related to sleep disorders or medications, alcohol or drugs.

Concentration difficulties may be long-term, established conditions, as in the case of attention deficit disorder, or they may arise as a result of illness or another event.

Medical conditions that are known to cause difficulties with concentration include a variety of chronic illnesses, sleep apnea, heavy metal poisoning, infections, pain syndromes, traumatic brain injury, and stroke. Cognitive problems that can be associated with concentration difficulties include attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities, vision disorders, delirium, and dementia. Psychological conditions that can interfere with concentration include anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder (alternating periods of depression and elevated mood), emotional trauma, and stress.

Depending upon the cause, concentration difficulties may resolve with appropriate treatment.

Any changes in concentration abilities that do not have a directly identifiable cause or that last more than a day or two should be evaluated by a medical professional without delay. Seek prompt medical carefor new onset, progressive, or worsening difficulties with concentration. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if the symptoms come on suddenly or if they are associated with head trauma, changes in level of consciousness or alertness, the worst headache of your life, high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), loss of sensation, seizures, or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations or delusions.

What other symptoms might occur with concentration difficulty?

Concentration difficulties may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Conditions that lead to concentration difficulty may involve several different body systems.

Infection symptoms that may occur along with concentration difficulty

Concentration difficulties may accompany symptoms related to infection including:

  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Malaise or lethargy
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Rash
  • Seizures
  • Stiff or rigid neck

Symptoms of chronic illnesses or metabolic disorders that may occur along with concentration difficulty

Concentration difficulties may accompany symptoms related to chronic illnesses and metabolic disorders including:

  • Abdominal pain

  • Abnormal heart rhythm such as rapid heart rate (tachycardia) or slow heart rate (bradycardia)

  • Changes in skin

  • Confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment

  • Difficulty breathing or rapid breathing

  • Fatigue

  • Feeling very thirsty

  • Frequent urination, or reduced or absent urination

  • Fruity breath

  • Muscle weakness

  • Nausea with or without vomiting

Other symptoms that may occur along with concentration difficulty

Concentration difficulties may accompany symptoms related to other problems such as injury, stroke, dementia, or psychiatric conditions. Examples include:

  • Change in sleep patterns

  • Changes in mood, personality or behavior

  • Confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment

  • Difficulty with memory, thinking, talking, comprehension, writing or reading

  • Impaired balance and coordination

  • Loss of vision or changes in vision

  • Nausea with or without vomiting

  • Numbness, weakness or paralysis

  • Seizure

  • Severe headache

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, concentration difficulty may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness such as passing out or unresponsiveness

  • Change in mental status or sudden behavior change such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations or delusions

  • Garbled or slurred speech or inability to speak

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • High-pitched, shrill cries in an infant or small child

  • Paralysis or inability to move a body part

  • Poor feeding, unusual sleepiness, or irritability in a child or infant

  • Seizure

  • Stiff or rigid neck

  • Sudden change in vision, loss of vision, or eye pain

  • Trauma to the head

  • Worst headache of your life

What causes concentration difficulty?

Concentration difficulties can be caused by medical, cognitive or psychological problems or may be related to sleep disorders or medications, alcohol or drugs.

Psychological conditions that can interfere with concentration include anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, emotional trauma, and stress.

Medical causes of concentration difficulty

Concentration difficulty may be caused by medical conditions including:

Cognitive causes of concentration difficulty

Concentration difficulty can also be caused by cognitive problems including:

  • Attention deficit disorder
  • Delirium
  • Dementia
  • Learning disabilities

Psychological causes of concentration difficulty

Concentration difficulty can also be caused by psychological conditions including:

  • Alcohol or substance abuse

  • Anxiety

  • Bipolar disorder (alternating periods of depression and elevated mood)

  • Depression

  • Emotional trauma

  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

  • Schizophrenia (severe brain disorder affecting thought processes and emotional responses)

  • Stress

Serious or life-threatening causes of concentration difficulty

In some cases, concentration difficulty may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

Questions for diagnosing the cause of concentration difficulty

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your concentration difficulty including:

  • How long have you had difficulty with concentration?

  • Do you have any other symptoms?

  • Do you have any difficulties with sleeping?

  • Do you have any medical problems?

  • Did anything such as an injury or illness precede the symptoms?

  • What medications are you taking? Are you taking any new medications?

  • Do you drink any alcohol?

  • Are you using any street drugs?

What are the potential complications of concentration difficulty?

Because concentration difficulty can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Developmental delays and failure to thrive
  • Learning disability
  • Paralysis or inability to move a body part
  • Permanent cognitive impairment
  • Permanent loss of sensation
  • Personality changes
  • Physical disability
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 10
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002518/.
  2. Stress: The different kinds of stress. American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-kinds.aspx.