Muscle atrophy: Types, causes, symptoms, treatment, diagnosis

Muscle atrophy might sound like a complex term, but it’s something that can affect anyone. At its core, it refers to the loss of muscle mass, a condition that might not seem serious at first glance but can significantly impact your health and daily life.

Think about how vital our muscles are for every movement we make, from the simplest tasks like walking to the door to more strenuous activities like lifting heavy objects. When muscles lose their strength and mass, every action becomes a challenge.

Whether you’re a fitness enthusiast looking to protect your gains or someone concerned about the health impacts of a sedentary lifestyle, knowing about muscle atrophy is the first step towards maintaining your strength and mobility for years to come.

What is the classification of muscle atrophy?

Muscle atrophy, or the loss of muscle mass, is a condition that many might brush off as merely a sign of aging or a temporary setback from an injury [1].

Let’s break down the two main types of muscle atrophy: disuse atrophy and neurogenic atrophy. While they might end in the same result—loss of muscle mass—the reasons behind them and their implications can be quite different.

Disuse atrophy

It’s what happens when muscles aren’t used as they usually would be, whether due to an injury that keeps you on the couch, a job that has you sitting more than moving, or any other reason that cuts down on your physical activity.

This kind of muscle loss can sneak up on you, turning simple tasks into challenging feats over time. Here’s what you need to know about disuse atrophy:

  • It’s reversible. The good news is that with the right approach, you can regain the muscle mass you’ve lost. Starting with gentle exercises and gradually upping the intensity can help your muscles bounce back.
  • Prevention is key. Incorporating regular physical activity into your routine is crucial. Even small changes, like taking short walks or doing light stretching, can make a big difference.
  • Everyone is at risk. It’s not just athletes or fitness enthusiasts who need to worry about disuse atrophy. If your lifestyle has become more sedentary, it’s time to think about how you can get moving again.

Understanding disuse atrophy is a wake-up call for many. It emphasizes the importance of staying active, not just for muscle mass, but for overall health. Making an effort to move more every day can help keep your muscles strong and ready for anything life throws your way.

Neurogenic atrophy 
Photograph: pixelaway/Envato

Neurogenic atrophy 

Unlike disuse atrophy, where muscle loss is due to not using them enough, this type occurs much faster because the nerves that signal muscles to move are damaged.

Conditions like ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), multiple sclerosis, or an injury can impair these nerves, leading to a rapid decrease in muscle mass. Here are some crucial points about neurogenic atrophy:

  • It’s more severe. Because it’s tied to nerve damage, neurogenic atrophy can lead to more significant muscle loss than disuse atrophy. Rebuilding muscle is also more challenging.
  • Symptoms can vary. Beyond just muscle loss, you might notice weakness, twitching, or numbness. These symptoms are clues that the problem isn’t just about muscle disuse but involves nerve damage.
  • Treatment focuses on the underlying cause. Addressing neurogenic atrophy often means tackling the condition or injury affecting the nerves. This could involve medication, physical therapy, or in some cases, surgery to relieve nerve compression.

Understanding neurogenic atrophy highlights the importance of our nervous system’s health in maintaining muscle strength and function [2]. It’s a reminder that keeping our nerves as healthy as our muscles is crucial for overall mobility and well-being.

What is the most common cause of muscle atrophy?

Muscle atrophy, or the loss of muscle mass, happens for various reasons, affecting anyone from the most active athletes to those leading a more sedentary lifestyle.

Let’s dive into the main factors that can lead to muscle atrophy.

Physical inactivity

Physical inactivity is a leading cause of muscle atrophy, striking those who sit more than they move. Whether it’s due to a desk job, a long recovery from injury, or a lifestyle choice, the lack of movement tells your muscles they’re not needed, and so, they begin to diminish. Here’s what you should know:

  • Muscles thrive on being used. Without regular activity, they shrink in size and lose strength.
  • No one’s exempt. If your lifestyle doesn’t include much movement, your muscle health is on the line.
  • Incorporating simple activities into your daily routine can counteract the effects of sitting. Think standing desks, short walks, or even stretching sessions during breaks.

Staying active is not just about fitness; it’s about keeping your muscles engaged and ready for whatever life throws your way.

Aging

Aging naturally brings about changes in muscle mass and strength, a process known as sarcopenia.

As we grow older, our bodies gradually lose muscle fibers, especially the fast-twitch type, which are crucial for quick, powerful movements. Here’s what’s important to understand:

  • This decline in muscle mass starts as early as our 30s and continues throughout life.
  • Adjustments in hormone levels, particularly testosterone and growth hormone, contribute to muscle loss.
  • Aging affects how our bodies synthesize protein, making it harder to maintain and build muscle [3].

Staying active, eating a protein-rich diet, and engaging in strength training can help mitigate the effects of aging on muscles. It’s about adapting our habits to support our bodies as they change over time.

Malnutrition

Malnutrition significantly impacts muscle health, leading to atrophy when your body doesn’t get the nutrients it needs to maintain and build muscle tissue. It’s not just about eating less; it’s about not getting the right balance of nutrients. 

Muscles require protein to repair and grow. A lack of protein can directly result in muscle loss. Essential nutrients like vitamin D, calcium, and magnesium are critical in muscle function.

Consuming too few calories can force your body to use muscle for energy, further contributing to atrophy.

Addressing malnutrition involves more than just eating more; it’s about ensuring a balanced intake of all essential nutrients to support muscle health and overall well-being.

Chronic diseases 

Chronic diseases can take a toll on muscle mass, leading to atrophy over time. Conditions like diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and kidney disease impact muscles in various ways, from reducing blood flow to altering the body’s ability to process nutrients. Here are some key points:

  • Diabetes: High blood sugar levels can cause nerve damage and poor blood flow, weakening muscles.
  • Heart disease: Reduced circulation can starve muscles of oxygen and nutrients, leading to atrophy.
  • Kidney disease: Changes in body chemistry can result in muscle wasting.

Managing these conditions with proper medical care, alongside a healthy diet and exercise regimen, can help mitigate muscle loss. It’s about balancing disease management with activities that support muscle health.

Neurological conditions

This type of muscle loss can occur rapidly because the damaged nerves cannot effectively communicate with the muscles. Conditions such as ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), multiple sclerosis (MS), and peripheral neuropathy are common culprits. Here’s what to consider:

  • ALS: Attacks motor neurons, reducing the muscles’ ability to function.
  • MS: Affects the brain and spinal cord, leading to muscle weakness and loss.
  • Peripheral neuropathy: Damages peripheral nerves, affecting muscle control and strength, particularly in the limbs.

Addressing these conditions often requires a comprehensive approach, including medication, physical therapy, and lifestyle adjustments, to maintain muscle function and quality of life as much as possible. Support and understanding from healthcare providers and loved ones are crucial.

What are the symptoms of muscle wasting?

Recognizing the symptoms of muscle atrophy is crucial for timely intervention and treatment. Whether it stems from a sedentary lifestyle, a neurological condition, or other causes, understanding these signs can help you seek the right help before the condition progresses.

Let’s explore the various symptoms that might indicate muscle atrophy is occurring.

Visible changes in muscle size

This isn’t just about muscles looking less defined; it’s a clear reduction in their size. You might see one arm or leg becoming noticeably smaller than the other, or your clothes might start fitting differently. Here are some points to consider:

  • Differences in size between the same muscles on opposite sides of the body can be a telltale sign.
  • Looser sleeves or pant legs, which they use to fit snugly, can indicate muscle loss.
  • Sometimes, gradual changes are hard to notice day-to-day. Comparing current pictures with those from the past can highlight differences in muscle size.

Acknowledging these changes is crucial. If you see visible reductions in muscle mass, it might be time to consult a healthcare provider to understand the underlying cause and explore treatment options.

Muscle weakness

A hallmark symptom of muscle atrophy is more than just feeling tired; it’s a noticeable drop in your physical strength [4]. This isn’t about a one-off day; it’s a consistent difficulty in performing tasks that used to be manageable. Here’s how to spot it:

  • Opening jars, carrying groceries, or climbing stairs might suddenly seem harder.
  • You might find it difficult to hold onto things, leading to a frequent dropping of objects.
  • Getting up from a chair or walking for even short distances can feel strenuous.

If you’re experiencing these signs of muscle weakness, it could indicate that your muscles are losing mass and strength.

It’s critical to take care of this as soon as possible by speaking with a healthcare provider for a precise diagnosis and suitable course of action. Ignoring these symptoms can lead to further muscle deterioration.

Muscle weakness
Photograph: JoPanwatD/Envato

Reduced muscle tone

Reduced muscle tone is another indicator of muscle atrophy that goes beyond just a decrease in size. When muscles lose their tone, they feel softer and less firm to the touch, a sign that they’re not as strong or capable as they once were. Here’s what to look out for:

  • Even without flexing, your muscles should have a certain firmness. A loss in tone means they might feel softer.
  • Without their usual tone, muscles can appear saggy or less defined.
  • Everyday actions, like lifting objects or opening doors, may require more effort.

Noticing a reduction in muscle tone can be a wake-up call to take action. Whether it’s incorporating more strength training into your routine, adjusting your diet, or consulting with a healthcare provider, addressing this early can help prevent further muscle loss and maintain your overall health and mobility.

Difficulty performing daily activities

Difficulty performing daily activities can be a clear sign that muscle atrophy is impacting your life more than you might realize. When muscles lose strength and size, even simple tasks can become challenging. Here’s what might happen:

  • Walking, climbing stairs, or standing up from a seated position becomes harder.
  • Carrying groceries, cooking, or doing household chores requires more effort.
  • Engaging in hobbies that were once enjoyable, like gardening or crafting, might now be difficult.

If you’re finding that everyday tasks are becoming a struggle, it’s a signal that your muscles aren’t as strong as they used to be. This is the time to seek advice from a healthcare professional who can guide you on the path to regaining strength and function. 

Muscle fatigue

It is not just about feeling tired; it’s when your muscles lose their ability to perform over time, especially during activities that were once easy.

This type of fatigue is a key symptom of muscle atrophy, and it’s different from just needing a good night’s sleep. Here’s how it shows up:

  • Activities like walking, climbing stairs, or carrying items become more exhausting.
  • You may notice a decrease in your endurance during physical activities.
  • Even after resting, your muscles might still feel weak and unable to perform at their usual capacity.

If muscle fatigue is becoming a common experience, it’s essential to consider why. It could be a sign that your muscles are not as strong or healthy as they could be [5].

Consulting with a healthcare professional can help identify the cause and determine the best course of action to regain strength and vitality.

What are the treatments for muscular atrophy?

Treating and managing muscle atrophy involves a multifaceted approach tailored to the individual’s specific condition, underlying causes, and lifestyle.

Whether the atrophy is due to prolonged inactivity, a chronic disease, or a neurological condition, the goal is to halt muscle loss, regain strength, and improve overall functionality.

Physical therapy

Physical therapy stands out as a beacon of hope for those facing muscle atrophy. It’s not just about exercises; it’s a personalized journey to regain strength and mobility. Here’s what it involves:

  • Designed to gradually build up muscle strength without overdoing it.
  • Helps maintain or improve the range of motion, which is essential for daily activities.
  • Especially crucial for preventing falls and improving mobility.
  • Therapists provide valuable insights on safe ways to stay active, even outside therapy sessions.
  • Being supported by an expert might give you more self-assurance and motivate you to overcome obstacles.

Physical therapy is a partnership. With commitment and the right guidance, it can significantly improve your quality of life, helping you move better and feel stronger.

Exercise

Exercise is a powerful tool in combating muscle atrophy, offering a pathway to rebuild strength and enhance mobility [6]. 

Incorporate weights or resistance bands to challenge your muscles, promoting growth and strength. Gradually increase intensity and duration to avoid overexertion.

Engage in activities like walking, swimming, or cycling to boost cardiovascular health and endurance. Regular exercise, tailored to your ability level, ensures continuous improvement. 

Mix up your exercises to work different muscle groups and keep your routine engaging.

Committing to a regular exercise regimen can transform your physical health, turning back the clock on muscle atrophy. With perseverance, you’ll not only rebuild lost muscle but also pave the way for a more active, fulfilling life.

Nutritional support

Nutritional support is crucial in the fight against muscle atrophy, providing the building blocks your body needs to maintain and rebuild muscle tissue. 

Aim for a protein-rich diet with sources like lean meats, beans, and dairy to aid muscle repair and growth. Incorporate fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats to ensure you’re getting a wide range of nutrients.

Water plays a key role in muscle function, so keep your fluid intake up.

Focus on foods high in vitamins D and E, calcium, and magnesium, which are essential for muscle health.

In some cases, supplements like creatine may help, but it’s best to consult with a healthcare provider first.

Eating well supports your body’s ability to fight atrophy, enhances your energy levels, and helps you get the most out of physical therapy and exercise routines.

Medications and supplements

Medications and supplements can play a supportive role in managing muscle atrophy, especially when combined with physical therapy and a nutritious diet. Here’s a brief guide:

  • Anti-inflammatories: Can help manage pain and inflammation that may accompany muscle loss.
  • Vitamin D and calcium: Essential for bone health, which supports muscle function.
  • Creatine supplements: Known to enhance strength and improve muscle mass in some individuals.
  • Amino acids: The building blocks of protein, crucial for muscle repair and growth.

Before starting any new supplement or medication, it’s important to talk with your healthcare provider to ensure it’s safe and appropriate for your specific situation.

Integrating these into your care plan, under medical advice, can complement physical efforts, potentially accelerating progress in rebuilding strength and function.

How is muscle atrophy diagnosed?

Diagnosing muscle atrophy involves a series of steps designed to understand the extent of muscle loss, its underlying causes, and the best course of action for treatment and management.

It’s a process that combines clinical evaluation with advanced diagnostic tools, ensuring a comprehensive assessment of the condition. 

Clinical evaluation

A clinical evaluation is the first and foundational step in diagnosing muscle atrophy. This thorough assessment involves several key components:

  • Medical history: Collecting detailed information about any past and present medical conditions, surgeries, injuries, and lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise habits.
  • Symptom review: Discussing the onset, duration, and progression of symptoms like muscle weakness, visible muscle loss, and any difficulties with daily activities.
  • Physical examination: A hands-on examination to assess muscle strength, tone, and any noticeable differences in muscle size between limbs. This also includes checking for reflexes and any sensory loss.

This initial evaluation sets the stage for understanding the patient’s condition, guiding the choice of diagnostic tests, and forming a preliminary diagnosis. 

Diagnostic tests

Diagnostic tests play a crucial role in accurately diagnosing muscle atrophy, helping to pinpoint the severity and underlying causes. Here are some key tests used:

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): Offers detailed images of muscles, revealing changes in muscle size and the presence of fatty deposits that can indicate atrophy [7].
  • CT scan (computed tomography): Provides a different perspective with cross-sectional images, useful for assessing the extent of muscle loss.
  • EMG (electromyography): Measures the electrical activity of muscles. An EMG can detect abnormalities that suggest muscle or nerve disorders, making it invaluable for diagnosing neurogenic atrophy.
  • Nerve conduction studies: Assess the speed and strength of signals traveling along nerves to the muscles. Slower or weaker signals can indicate nerve damage contributing to muscle atrophy.
  • Blood tests: Can identify underlying conditions that may lead to muscle atrophy, such as nutritional deficiencies or markers of chronic diseases like diabetes.
  • Muscle biopsy: Though less common, a biopsy involves taking a small sample of muscle tissue for analysis. It can help distinguish between types of muscle atrophy and identify specific pathological changes.

These tests provide a comprehensive view, guiding healthcare professionals in creating effective treatment plans tailored to the individual’s needs.

In closing

Understanding muscle atrophy is vital, whether it’s recognizing the early signs, knowing when to seek medical advice, or exploring the various treatments and management strategies available.

Muscle atrophy isn’t just a condition that affects the physically inactive or elderly; it can impact anyone, including those recovering from an injury or living with a chronic condition.

Muscle atrophy is manageable, especially with early intervention and a proactive approach to treatment and lifestyle changes. By staying active, eating well, and seeking professional advice when necessary, you can maintain muscle health and function, ensuring a higher quality of life.

FAQs

What is the greatest cause of muscle atrophy?

The greatest cause of muscle atrophy is physical inactivity, often resulting from a sedentary lifestyle or prolonged immobilization due to injury or illness.

What are the different types of muscle atrophy?

There are two main types of muscle atrophy: disuse atrophy, caused by a lack of physical activity, and neurogenic atrophy, which results from injury or disease affecting the nerves connected to muscles.

How is muscle atrophy diagnosed?

Muscle atrophy is diagnosed through a clinical evaluation, including a review of medical history, physical examination, and diagnostic tests like MRI, CT scans, and electromyography.

What is the medical treatment for muscle atrophy?

Medical treatment for muscle atrophy may include physical therapy, nutritional support, medications to address underlying conditions, and in some cases, surgical intervention to correct anatomical causes of nerve compression.

[1] https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22310-muscle-atrophy
[2] https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003188.htm
[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4882708/
[4] https://www.healthline.com/health/muscle-atrophy
[5] https://www.healthline.com/health/muscle-fatigue
[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6586834/
[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5749928/

Photograph: YuriArcursPeopleimages/Envato
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