Muscle atrophy is when muscles waste away. The main reason for muscle wasting is a lack of physical activity. This can happen when a disease or injury makes it difficult or impossible for you to move an arm or leg. A symptom of atrophied muscles is an arm that appears smaller, but not shorter, than the other arm.
You should schedule an appointment with your doctor if you think you are experiencing muscle atrophy. Your doctor will determine what treatment you need. In some cases, muscle wasting can be reversed with a proper diet, exercise, or physical therapy.
Symptoms of muscle atrophy
You may have muscle atrophy if:
- One of your arms or legs is noticeably smaller than the other.
- You are experiencing marked weakness in one limb.
- You have been physically inactive for a very long time.
Contact your doctor to have a complete medical examination if you believe you may have muscle atrophy or if you are unable to move normally. You may have an undiagnosed condition that requires treatment. Your doctor will be able to provide you with diet and exercise options.
Causes of muscle atrophy
Unused muscles can waste away if you are not active. Even after it begins, this type of atrophy can often be reversed with exercise and improved nutrition.
Muscle atrophy can also happen if you are bedridden or unable to move certain body parts due to a medical condition. Astronauts, for example, can also experience some muscle atrophy after a few days of weightlessness.
Other causes for muscle atrophy include:
- lack of physical activity for an extended period of time
- alcohol-associated myopathy, a pain and weakness in muscles due to excessive drinking over long periods of time
- injuries, such as a torn rotator cuff or broken bones
- spinal cord or peripheral nerve injuries
- long-term corticosteroid therapy
Diseases can cause muscles to waste away or can make movement difficult, leading to muscle atrophy. These include:
- amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, affects nerve cells that control voluntary muscle movement
- dermatomyositis, causes muscle weakness and skin rash
- Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease that leads to nerve inflammation and muscle weakness
- multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease in which the body destroys the protective coverings of nerves
- muscular dystrophy, an inherited disease that causes muscle weakness
- neuropathy, damage to a nerve or nerve group, resulting in loss of sensation or function
- osteoarthritis, causes reduced motion in the joints
- polio, a viral disease affecting muscle tissue that can lead to paralysis
- polymyositis, an inflammatory disease
- rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disease that affects the joints
- spinal muscular atrophy, a hereditary disease causing arm and leg muscles to waste away
How muscle atrophy is diagnosed
Your doctor will ask about your complete medical history. Tell them about old or recent injuries and previously diagnosed medical conditions. List prescriptions, over-the counter medications, and supplements you’re taking. And give a detailed description of your symptoms.
Your doctor may also order tests to help with the diagnosis and to rule out certain diseases. These tests may include:
- blood tests
- magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- computed tomography (CT) scan
- nerve conduction studies
- muscle or nerve biopsy
- electromyography (EMG)
Your doctor may refer you to a specialist depending on the results of these tests.
How muscle atrophy is treated
Treatment will depend on the diagnosis and the severity of your muscle loss. Any underlying medical conditions must be addressed. Common treatments for muscle atrophy include:
- physical therapy
- ultrasound therapy
- dietary changes
Recommended exercises might include water exercises to help make movement easier. Physical therapists can also teach you the correct ways to exercise. A physical therapist can move your arms and legs for you if you have trouble moving.
Ultrasound therapy is a noninvasive procedure that uses sound waves to aid in healing. Also, surgery may be necessary if your tendons, ligaments, skin, or muscles are too tight and prevent you from moving. This condition is called contracture deformity.
Surgery may be able to correct contracture deformity if your muscle atrophy is due to malnutrition. And a torn tendon may cause muscle atrophy, but surgery may also be able to correct it.
Your doctor will advise you about proper nutrition and suggest proper dietary supplements if necessary.
Medically Reviewed by: William Morrison, MD
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.