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Muscle Atrophy


Healthgrades Editorial Staff

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.

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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.


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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.

Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Oct 5, 2016

© 2017 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

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Medical References

  1. Muscle atrophy. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
  2. Spinal muscular atrophy. Spinal Muscular Atrophy Foundation.

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