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Muscle atrophy

Muscle wasting; Wasting; Atrophy of the muscles

Muscle atrophy is the wasting or loss of muscle tissue.

Causes

There are two types of muscle atrophy: disuse and neurogenic.

Disuse atrophy is caused by not using the muscles enough. This type of atrophy can often be reversed with exercise and better nutrition. People who are most affected are those who:

  • Have seated jobs, health problems that limit movement, or decreased activity levels.
  • Are bedridden
  • Cannot move their limbs because of stroke or other brain disease

Neurogenic atrophy is the most severe type of muscle atrophy. It can be from an injury to, or disease of, a nerve that connects to the muscle. This type of muscle atrophy tends to occur more suddenly than disuse atrophy.

Examples of diseases affecting the nerves that control muscles:

  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig disease)
  • Damage to a single nerve, such as carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome
  • Nerve damage caused by injury, diabetes, toxins, or alcohol
  • Polio (poliomyelitis)
  • Spinal cord injury

Although people can adapt to muscle atrophy, even minor muscle atrophy causes some loss of movement or strength.

Other causes of muscle atrophy may include:

Home Care

An exercise program may help treat muscle atrophy. Exercises may include ones done in a swimming pool to reduce the muscle workload, and other types of rehabilitation. Your health care provider can tell you more about this.

People who cannot actively move one or more joints can do exercises using braces or splints.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider for an appointment if you have unexplained or long-term muscle loss. You can often see this when you compare one hand, arm, or leg to the other.

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

The provider will perform a physical examination and ask about your medical history and symptoms, including:

  • When did the muscle atrophy begin?
  • Is it getting worse?
  • What other symptoms do you have?

The provider will look at your arms and legs and measure muscle size. This may help determine which nerves are affected.

Tests that may be performed include:

Treatment may include physical therapy, ultrasound therapy and, in some cases, surgery to correct a contracture.

References

Gibson J, Huntley J. The musculoskeletal system. In: Douglas G, Nicol F, Robertson C, eds. Macleod's Clinical Examination. 13th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2013:chap 14.

Selcen D. Muscle diseases. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 421.

    • Active vs. inactive muscle

      Active vs. inactive muscle - illustration

      People may lose 20 to 40 percent of their muscle -- and, along with it, their strength -- as they age. Scientists have found that a major reason people lose muscle is because they stop doing everyday activities that use muscle power, not just because they grow older.

      Active vs. inactive muscle

      illustration

    • Muscular atrophy

      Muscular atrophy - illustration

      Muscular atrophy is the decrease in size and wasting of muscle tissue. Muscles that lose their nerve supply can atrophy and simply waste away.

      Muscular atrophy

      illustration

      • Active vs. inactive muscle

        Active vs. inactive muscle - illustration

        People may lose 20 to 40 percent of their muscle -- and, along with it, their strength -- as they age. Scientists have found that a major reason people lose muscle is because they stop doing everyday activities that use muscle power, not just because they grow older.

        Active vs. inactive muscle

        illustration

      • Muscular atrophy

        Muscular atrophy - illustration

        Muscular atrophy is the decrease in size and wasting of muscle tissue. Muscles that lose their nerve supply can atrophy and simply waste away.

        Muscular atrophy

        illustration

      Tests for Muscle atrophy

       

      Review Date: 1/5/2016

      Reviewed By: Joseph V. Campellone, MD, Division of Neurology, Cooper University Hospital, Camden, NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

      The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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