Muscle Atrophy

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What is muscle atrophy?

Muscle atrophy, or muscle wasting, results from loss of muscle tissue. Little or no physical exercise and a sedentary lifestyle are common causes of muscle atrophy, in this case called disuse atrophy. Other common causes of disuse atrophy include medical conditions that decrease mobility, such as rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation) or osteoarthritis (thinning and weakening of the bones), and injuries, such as broken bones and burns. The aging process often leads to slow but progressive muscle atrophy.

Muscle atrophy caused by a nerve problem is called neurogenic atrophy. Common causes include neuromuscular diseases, such as spinal cord atrophy, multiple sclerosis (disease that affects the brain and spinal cord causing weakness, coordination, balance difficulties, and other problems), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease; a severe neuromuscular disease that causes muscle weakness and disability), or Guillain-Barre syndrome (autoimmune nerve disorder). Diabetic neuropathy, nerve damage associated with diabetes, may also lead to atrophy of the muscles.

In some cases, muscle atrophy can be a symptom of serious malnutrition or alcohol-related muscle disease. Injuries or trauma to nerves due to spinal cord injury, burns, or stroke can also lead to muscle atrophy. Depending on the cause, atrophy may occur in one muscle, a group of muscles, or the entire body, and it may be accompanied by numbness, pain or swelling, as well as other types of neuromuscular or skin symptoms.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if muscle weakness is sudden and accompanied by serious symptoms, such a sudden change in vision, loss of consciousness for even a brief moment, or paralysis or inability to move a body part, as these may be a sign of stroke.

Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for muscle atrophy but mild symptoms recur or are persistent.

What other symptoms might occur with muscle atrophy?

Muscle atrophy may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the muscles may also involve other body systems.

Neuromuscular symptoms that may occur along with muscle atrophy

Muscle atrophy may accompany other symptoms affecting the neuromuscular system including:

  • Balance problems, difficulty walking, and falls

  • Difficulty with speaking and swallowing

  • Facial weakness

  • Gradual difficulty walking and speaking, memory loss, tingling or weakness of extremities

  • Impaired balance and coordination

  • Loss of muscle coordination

  • Numbness or tingling in arms or legs

  • Progressive loss of movement

  • Progressive weakness and numbness in the legs

  • Symptoms of multiple sclerosis, such as weakness, numbness or tingling, vision problems, unsteady walk, fatigue, and depression

Other symptoms that may occur along with muscle atrophy

Muscle atrophy may accompany symptoms related to other body systems and conditions including:

  • Fatigue and general ill feeling

  • General stiffness that lasts more than one hour after rising in the morning

  • More frequent episodes of falling

  • Swelling of an injured area

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, muscle atrophy can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening sudden symptoms including:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness

  • Garbled or slurred speech or inability to speak

  • Paralysis or inability to move a body part

  • Sudden change in vision, loss of vision, or eye pain

  • Sudden weakness of numbness on one side of the body

  • Worst headache of your life

What causes muscle atrophy?

Muscle atrophy can result from lack of muscle movement and use, in which case it is called disuse atrophy. Causes include a sedentary lifestyle, being bedridden, injuries, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation). Another type of muscle atrophy is neurogenic atrophy, which is muscle atrophy due to a nerve problem, such as neuropathy and neuromuscular disease.

General causes of muscle atrophy

Muscle atrophy may be caused by situations or conditions including:

  • Being bedridden

  • Dermatomyositis (a condition characterized by muscle inflammation and skin rash)

  • Injury, such as a broken arm or leg that must be immobilized

  • Malnutrition (progressive weakening and inability to adequately use muscles)

  • Muscular dystrophy (inherited disorder that causes a progressive loss of muscle tissue and muscle weakness)

  • Osteoarthritis (common type of arthritis that causes pain and immobility)

  • Polymyositis (widespread inflammation and weakness of muscles)

  • Rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation)

Neurogenic causes of muscle atrophy

Muscle atrophy can also have neurogenic causes including:

  • Alcohol myopathy

  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease; a severe neuromuscular disease that causes muscle weakness and disability)

  • Diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage due to high blood sugar levels associated with diabetes)

  • Exposure to toxin or poisonous substances

  • Guillain-Barre syndrome (autoimmune nerve disorder)

  • Multiple sclerosis (disease that affects the brain and spinal cord causing weakness, coordination, balance difficulties, and other problems)

  • Neck or spinal cord injury

  • Spinal cord atrophy (genetic disease causing decreased muscle function from a neural defect)

Serious or life-threatening causes of muscle atrophy

In some cases, muscle atrophy may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Guillain-Barre syndrome (autoimmune nerve disorder)

  • Neck or spinal cord injury

  • Stroke

Questions for diagnosing the cause of muscle atrophy

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your muscle atrophy including:

  • Do you have any other symptoms?

  • Have you been receiving medical treatment for any other health conditions?

  • What medications are you taking?

  • When did you first notice muscle atrophy?

  • Which of your muscles are affected?

What are the potential complications of muscle atrophy?

Because muscle atrophy can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Decreased athletic performance

  • Decreased mobility

  • Disability

  • Loss of strength

  • Paralysis

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 1
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Muscle atrophy. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003188.htm
  2. Spinal muscular atrophy. Spinal Muscular Atrophy Foundation. http://www.smafoundation.org/faq-test-2/