Concentration Difficulty: Possible Medical Causes
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 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:
Congestive heart failure (deterioration of the heart’s ability to pump blood)
Heavy metal poisoning
Medication side effects (improvement may take time after drug discontinuation)
Sleep apnea (pauses in breathing during sleep)
Cognitive causes of concentration difficulty
Concentration difficulty can also be caused by cognitive problems including:
- Attention deficit disorder
- Learning disabilities
Psychological causes of concentration difficulty
Concentration difficulty can also be caused by psychological conditions including:
Alcohol or substance abuse
Bipolar disorder (alternating periods of depression and elevated mood)
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Schizophrenia (severe brain disorder affecting thought processes and emotional responses)
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:
Brain or spinal cord injury
Brain or spinal cord tumor
Meningitis (infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord)
Sepsis (severe infection of the bloodstream)
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?
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:
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
- Malaise or lethargy
- Nausea with or without vomiting
- 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:
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
Feeling very thirsty
Frequent urination, or reduced or absent urination
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
Numbness, weakness or paralysis
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
Stiff or rigid neck
Trauma to the head
Worst headache of your life