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What is Muscle Atrophy?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Muscle atrophy is a medical condition characterized by a gradual loss of mass in the muscles. The reduction in muscle mass leads to corresponding muscle weakness, as well as a shrunken, wasted appearance. There are a number of causes for muscle atrophy, ranging from the benign to the serious, and there are several approaches which can be used to treat or prevent loss of muscle mass.

One of the leading causes of muscle atrophy is disuse. If a muscle is not used regularly, it will tend to lose mass over time. People who are not active on a regular basis may develop atrophy, as will people who are bedridden or forced to wear casts which restrict the muscles. Astronauts are also prone to atrophy, because they lack the natural resistance of gravity which keeps their muscles in good shape; even a few days at zero gravity can cause muscle loss.

Another cause for atrophy is cachexia, or “body wasting syndrome.” This is a common problem for people with AIDS, cancers, and other serious chronic diseases. The syndrome may be caused by the disease itself, or the medications used to manage and treat it. Cachexia is a well-known problem, and doctors may recommend measures to patients at risk of body wasting syndrome to reduce the loss of muscle mass.

In neurogenic atrophy, nerve damage leads to the loss of mass. Conditions like osteoarthritis, strokes, Lou Gehrig's Disease, and diabetic neuropathy can all lead to neurogenic muscle atrophy. In these cases, the atrophy is a symptom of the disease, but it can become a severe problem, as the patient may eventually lose control over his or her extremities, or experience pain and discomfort as a result of shrunken, weakened muscles. Malnutrition can also cause a loss of muscle mass.

The key treatment for muscle atrophy is exercise, to work the muscles and promote the rebuilding of muscle tissue. Exercise may also be supplemented with dietary reinforcement which helps people build larger muscles. If exercise is not feasible, electrical nerve stimulation of the atrophied region can sometimes reduce the severity of the atrophy by working the muscle for the patient. This technique is sometimes used for people confined to wheelchairs to keep their muscle tone strong and healthy.

If muscle atrophy appears suddenly and does not have any apparent cause, it is a good idea to consult a doctor. The doctor can investigate the situation to determine the cause and recommend a course of treatment to prevent addition atrophy and rebuild the wasted muscles. Muscle atrophy should definitely not be ignored, as it can lead to serious problems and a decline in quality of life.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon271785 — On May 28, 2012

So I am doing research on muscle and bone atrophy in space and I do not know what to do or talk about in this project. What should I do?

By anon135501 — On Dec 19, 2010

My name is mahendra.s. i have been suffering from facial muscle atrophy.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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