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Muscle atrophy

Definition

Muscle atrophy is the wasting or loss of muscle tissue.

Alternative Names

Muscle wasting; Wasting; Atrophy of the muscles

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.



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.
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