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Muscle Atrophy

Written by Dr.Mary

What is Muscle Atrophy?

Have you ever experienced fracturing a limb and not being able to use it for quite some time? You will then realize that the other limb seems to appear bigger over the affected limb. This could be an indication of muscle atrophy. What then is muscle atrophy? Muscle atrophy or muscle wasting can be defined as the loss of muscle tissues. There are several conditions which would lead to muscle atrophy. The mere lack of exercise or a sedentary lifestyle may cause your muscles to atrophy. More serious conditions such as poliomyelitis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) which is popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, Guillain Barre Syndrome (GBS), inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and several other diseases would cause muscle disuse which eventually result to muscle wasting or atrophy. Sustaining an injury after a vehicular accident would also cause muscle atrophy and even the aging process would as well lead to it. More specifically, muscle atrophy can be classified into two:

Disuse atrophy

This primarily occurs due to lack of muscle use. When you have a sedentary way of living and you fail to indulge to any forms of exercise that permit muscle use, you may likely suffer from disuse atrophy. There are also other medical conditions which would limit your muscle use. A debilitated or bedridden patient would likewise also suffer from disuse atrophy due to the limited range of motion. Astronauts are also at risk for disuse atrophy because of the prolonged weightlessness they experience which would trigger calcium loss in the bones.

Neurogenic atrophy

When there is damage to a certain nerve that joins the muscles, neurogenic muscle atrophy is likely to occur. Of the two types of muscle atrophy, this is the more serious one. Compared to disuse atrophy, neurogenic atrophy takes place more suddenly. Conditions like amyotropic lateral sclerosis, Guillain Barre Syndrome, poliomyelitis and other diseases with neuromuscular involvement can be classified as neurogenic atrophy.

Muscle Atrophy Symptoms

Aside from the visible muscle wasting, the following symptoms may also be present in muscle atrophy.

  • Problems in maintaining balance, as well as walking
  • Weakness in the facial muscles
  • Speaking may become a difficulty and memory loss may also be present
  • Tingling and weakness in the extremities
  • Loss of muscle coordination
  • Numbness or tingling in arms or legs
  • Gradual loss of movement
  • The weakness may become progressive limiting your movement
  • Easy fatigability

Most importantly, you should note for the danger signs of muscle atrophy which include the following:

  • Changes in sensorium and sudden loss of consciousness
  • Slurring of speech
  • Local or generalized paralysis
  • Eye pain with blurring or even sudden loss of vision
  • Severe headache

When you noted any of the above mentioned life-threatening symptoms of muscle atrophy, do not be reluctant to seek medical help because this may indicate an impending doom. There should not be a delay so as to prevent irreversible damages.

Muscle Atrophy Causes

Generally, there can be two causes of muscle atrophy. First off, this can be due to the lack of muscle use probably because of impaired mobility in cases of bedridden people and those with inflammatory joint diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. Damage to nerve can also cause neurogenic muscle atrophy. Some cases of muscle atrophy may be due to the normal process of aging. Nonetheless, this can also be specifically due to the following factors:

Disuse Atrophy Causes

  • Becoming bedridden
  • Dermatomyositis– This is a disease manifested by the presence of muscle inflammation and skin rash
  • Sustaining an injury such as arm or leg fracture
  • Malnutrition– This makes a person very weak to initiate even a single movement.
  • Muscular dystrophy– It is possible for someone to inherit this condition which is characterized by the gradual loss of muscle tissues leading to muscle weakness.
  • Osteoarthritis– As people grow older, they may also likely suffer from a condition called osteoarthritis which commonly brings about pain and impairs mobility.
  • Polymyositis– This is characterized by muscle inflammation which eventually leads to muscle weakness.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis– This is a type of inflammatory joint disease which would also cause muscle atrophy.

Neurogenic Atrophy Causes

  • Alcohol myopathy
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – Former athlete, Lou Gehrig, was the first person to be diagnosed of this disease. This is a serious type of muscle weakness which may lead to death.
  • Diabetic neuropathy– The nerve can also get damaged with high glucose levels.
  • Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) – This is another type of autoimmune disease which also causes muscle weakness.
  • Multiple sclerosis- This is brought about by the demyelination of the protective cover of the nerve called myelin sheath which leads to muscle weakness and loss of muscle coordination.
  • Neck or spinal cord injury
  • Spinal cord atrophy– Some people are born with this condition which causes damage to the spinal cord leading to profound weakness.

Muscle Atrophy Diagnosis

Aside from the presence of clinical manifestations and thorough history taking, muscle atrophy can be confirmed through the following:

  • CT scan
  • Electromyography
  • MRI
  • Muscle/Nerve biopsy
  • Nerve conduction analysis

Muscle Atrophy Treatment

There are varying modes on how to treat muscle atrophy and these may include the following:



This is the best way to treat muscle atrophy. Most types of disused atrophy can be cured with this, so long as there’s not a presence of a more serious condition like GBS, ALS and many others. The suggested exercises include brisk walking, swimming, jogging and other cardio exercises. However, before you indulge to any of these, it is imperative that you consult your physician first for any limitations.


Medications would usually include corticosteroids and other anti-inflammatory drugs to halt the inflammatory process, if there’s one.

Joint manipulation by a chiropractor

Ever heard of a chiropractor? A chiropractor is an individual licensed to do joint manipulation to correct impaired mobility. The joint is literally stretched to allow more movement. However, this may not work especially for more serious conditions.


Surgery may be the last resort to treat muscle atrophy.


There are several factors which influence the rate of recovery in people with muscle atrophy. Often, those who are only suffering from disuse atrophy would eventually recover in no time, provided that rigid exercise is done. However, for those with more serious conditions like Guillain Barre and ALS, a more intensive treatment is required. Overall, the chance of recovery for people with muscle atrophy largely depends on the type of muscle atrophy one has.

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