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The information contained on this page is provided as general health information and is not intended to substitute as medical advice and direction from your physician or health care provider. Please direct any questions related to your health care provider. In an emergency, call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency center.


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 three types of muscle atrophy: physiologic, pathologic, and neurogenic.

Physiologic 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
  • Are in a place that lacks gravity, such as during space flights

Pathologic atrophy is seen with aging, starvation, and diseases such as Cushing disease (because of taking too much medicines called corticosteroids).

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 physiologic atrophy.

Examples of diseases affecting the nerves that control muscles:

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.

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Active vs. inactive muscleMuscular atrophy

References

Ball JW, Dains JE, Flynn JA, Solomon BS, Stewart RW. Musculoskeletal system. In: Ball JW, Dains JE, Flynn JA, Solomon BS, Stewart RW, eds. Seidel's Guide to Physical Examination. 9th ed. St Louis, MO: Elsevier; 2019:chap 22.

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