Brain Fog

By Jan Michael Bacalzo PT, DPT, Outreach Physical Therapist and Melissa Roque, MS CCC-SLP, Outreach Speech-Language Pathologist

Rachel is a 40-year-old working mother. One afternoon, as she was going back to her car after grocery shopping, Rachel was suddenly at a loss, and could not remember where she had parked her car. She frantically tried to remember, but nothing came to mind.  The harder she tried, the more her mind went blank. She was on the verge of panicking, but fortunately, after minutes of thinking, her memory came back and she recalled where her car was parked.

Does this incident sound familiar? If you have been in the same situation as Rachel, then you may have experienced brain fog.

What is Brain Fog?

“Brain fog” is a term people may use when describing a state of mental confusion, an inability to think clearly, or difficulty concentrating. It is not a medical term, but is a way that some people describe how it feels to experience subtle changes in their cognitive function. Some might complain of changes in memory, focus, logic, and problem-solving skills. It is typically described as having an abrupt onset, and is usually transient, meaning that it comes and goes. Although “brain fog” is not a medical condition, it can be a symptom of other health issues that will need medical attention. In addition to neurological conditions such as stroke, Parkinson’s, or traumatic brain injury, brain fog can be caused or exacerbated by stress, sleep deprivation, hormonal conditions, or medications.

COVID-19 and Brain Fog

As COVID-19 has greatly affected the whole world, one change has been an increase in complaints of “brain fog”. Cognitive challenges are among several symptoms frequently reported by individuals to persist post-COVID infection. Since COVID-19 can affect the brain and other vital organs, it is not uncommon to hear recovered patients complaining of “brain fog”. One explanation is that it may be physiological in nature due to the reduction of oxygen in the brain caused by breathing difficulties. In addition, long isolation, stress, and mental fatigue can psychologically trigger brain fog in patients.

How to Manage Brain Fog

Perhaps you’ve experienced a lapse in thinking like Rachel in the example above, or maybe during a bout with illness, or as a side effect of medication, and were able to recover within a few minutes or few hours. But what happens when brain fog sticks around?

Since “brain fog” is not a medical condition but instead is a symptom of other medical issues, treating the root cause of brain fog is still the best way to manage it. It is important to speak with your doctor and make sure that any underlying conditions are well-managed.

A healthier lifestyle can also be beneficial. Eating a well-balanced diet, exercising regularly and getting adequate sleep can help reduce the onset or severity of brain fog. Proper stress management can also contribute to avoiding the occurrence of brain fog. If it seriously affects an individual and has been debilitating, seeking neurological consultation is strongly advised.

Rehabilitation, which may include physical, occupational, and speech-language therapy, can be helpful to some patients experiencing subtle cognitive symptoms. Rehabilitative therapy has been shown to help some patients who have recovered from COVID-19 and are experiencing lingering symptoms, including cognitive difficulties. A speech-language pathologist can work with an individual to improve memory, executive function (attention, organization, problem solving, and planning), and communication. Treatment focusing on the aforementioned areas consist of techniques also used for individuals with stroke, traumatic brain injury, and neurodegenerative conditions. Occupational therapists also often work on memory and executive function in the context of activities of daily living. Getting up and moving safely with the help of a physical therapist may also be beneficial, as this has been shown to positively affect cognitive function.

If you feel that you are suffering from brain fog, you should reach out to your medical providers in order to develop the right intervention plan for you.