Muscle atrophy is a condition in which your muscles waste away. This usually (but not always) occurs due to lack of physical activity.
It typically occurs in individuals for whom physical activity has become difficult or impossible as a result of disease or injury.
Typically, the loss of muscle tissue shows up in the form of a reduction in size of the unused muscles. It may be difficult or impossible to move an arm or leg for an extended period. If so, the loss of muscle mass can cause that limb to gradually shrink compared to the other one.
In this article, we will examine the most common symptoms of muscle atrophy and then briefly discuss the usual causes. We will end with a discussion of the treatments currently available to slow or reverse this problem.
As always, the contents of this article should not be regarded as professional advice. If you think you are suffering from muscle atrophy, we would advise consulting with a medical professional. He or she will be able to properly diagnose your condition and then suggest the appropriate remedies.
Symptoms Of Muscle Atrophy
As mentioned above, this condition usually causes a shrinkage of one or more of your limbs compared to the others.
Other potential indications of muscle atrophy include:
Muscle weakness that causes you to be unable to perform functions that previously presented no difficulty;
You have experienced a marked decrease over a significant period in your normal level of physical activity. This may have occurred due to the causes we discuss next.
Muscle Atrophy Causes
We have already stated above that this condition can be the result of an extended period of relative inactivity.
Reduced use of certain muscles can cause a marked decrease in their size and strength. For certain muscles, such as the weight bearing ones, this can take place even over a short period.
The inactivity that leads to muscle atrophy can itself be the result of:
Being bedridden over an extended period due to illness;
Spinal cord injuries that can force inactivity due to paralysis (for example);
Serious injuries such as a bone fracture or serious burns.
In some cases, the reduction in muscle use can be caused by certain diseases or medical conditions. These diseases or events may make it impossible or difficult to continue using certain muscles. Examples are:
A stroke, which can also force a cessation or reduction in the use of certain limbs/muscles;
Diseases that affect the central nervous system. These may include (as a few examples):
amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease;
Multiple Sclerosis, which causes progressive destruction of nerve coverings;
Polio, a virus that attacks the muscles and eventually leads to paralysis;
Rheumatoid arthritis, which causes chronic joint inflammation and eventually makes movement very painful
Muscular dystrophy, which is an inherited medical condition that results in muscle weakness.
Other Possible Causes of Muscle Atrophy
Other potential causes of muscle atrophy, that may not be due to an enforced period of inactivity, may include:
Malnutrition, since the body depends on an adequate supply of nutrition (e.g. protein) to main muscle tissue;
Aging, which can lead to a reduced supply of hormones needed to maintain muscle tissues.
Diagnosing Muscle Atrophy
If you think you are seeing signs of muscle atrophy, the first step is to see your doctor.
Your doctor will probably start by reviewing your medical history. He or she will pay particular attention to previous injuries and any recent diagnoses of illness. You will likely also be asked to describe your symptoms in detail.
The doctor will probably want to request tests such as:
These tests will help your doctor to understand the causes of your muscle wastage. In particular, they may help to detect an underlying illness other than inactivity that is causing muscle tissue loss.
Muscle Atrophy Treatment
In deciding on the most appropriate treatment, your doctor will take account of the amount of muscle tissue lost. Priority will likely also be given to treating underlying medical conditions that may have led to the loss of muscle mass.
That said, as a first step, the recommended treatments might include:
An exercise program, likely as part of a course of physical therapy. The goal of physical therapy will be to help you exercise in the most efficient way to increase muscle mass;
Ultrasound therapy that uses therapeutical sound waves to treat the problem;
Changes to your diet such as an increase in your protein intake. This will be helpful if malnutrition is a contributing factor to your muscle tissue loss.
Another treatment technique that may be employed is electrical muscle stimulation (EMS). This involves the use of electrical signals to induce muscle movement. Over time, repeated EMS treatments may help slow or reverse the atrophy.
Another approach to treating muscle atrophy involves surgery. In cases involving muscle tissue loss due to malnutrition, contracture deformity may result. If so, surgery may be the most effective way to address the deformity.
Surgery may also be effective if your muscle tissue loss is due to a torn tendon that prevents normal muscle use. In this situation, the goal of surgery will be to repair the damaged tendon and allow normal muscle use to resume.