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Muscle Atrophy: Signs, Symptoms & Treatments

Muscle atrophy refers to the loss of muscle tissue caused by a long-term lack of physical activity. Individuals with this condition experience mobility issues, pain, and discomfort, reducing their quality of life. In this article, you’ll learn about muscle atrophy, its symptoms, causes, and the different treatment options available.

What is muscle atrophy?

Muscles are responsible for moving your body parts through contracting and relaxing motions. Contractions make muscles shorter, pulling the bones where they are attached to move various limbs. Alternatively, relaxed muscles return to their normal size. However, atrophy weakens the muscles, making it difficult for people to move and perform daily tasks.

People who suffer from muscle atrophy experience loss of muscle tissue. Underlying conditions and other health problems force the body to conserve energy by breaking down the muscles. This condition also involves the shrinking of muscle fibers by removing contractile proteins and organelles, both of which are crucial in muscle contraction and movement.

What causes muscle atrophy?

From natural causes like aging and genetics to irregular diets and nutrition, muscle degradation and atrophy have numerous causes. Below are a few examples of what can cause muscle atrophy:

Unhealthy and insufficient diet

Low quality and inadequate diet can cause muscle atrophy since the body doesn’t receive enough or the proper nutrients. For example, individuals who fail to consume ample lean protein, vegetables, and fruits are at a higher risk for reduced muscle mass. Moreover, excessive alcohol consumption can cause atrophy since alcoholic beverages weaken muscle fibers.

Injuries and lack of physical activity

Broken bones, burns, and injuries to the spinal cord and peripheral nerve can also cause muscle atrophy due to the extended rest period that these conditions require. You may ask, “How long does it take for muscles to atrophy?” Experts suggest that muscles start to shrink after four to six weeks of inactivity. However, this timeline varies from person to person. For instance, athletes tend to lose muscle mass more quickly than sedentary people.

Aging

Senior citizens tend to produce fewer proteins responsible for building, maintaining, and repairing the muscles. As a result, muscle tissues shrink, causing most elderly people to experience sarcopenia and accelerated muscle deterioration.

Genetics

Some people are also predisposed to muscle atrophy due to their genetic makeup. For instance, muscular dystrophy is an inherited disease that causes loss and weakness of muscle mass. Another example of a genetic disorder is spinal muscular atrophy which affects motor nerve cells and muscle tissues.

Underlying conditions

These underlying conditions also increase your risk for muscle atrophy:

  • Osteoarthritis

This condition is the most common form of arthritis that affects the cartilage in a joint, causing a reduced range of motion and weakened muscles.

  • Polio

Polio is a viral disease that can lead to paralysis. Individuals with polio can experience gradual and increasing muscle weakness.

  • Multiple Sclerosis

This is an autoimmune disease that destroys the nerves’ protective coverings, thereby affecting muscle tissues. As a result, it reduces muscle strength and mass.

  • Guillain-Barré syndrome

Guillain-Barré syndrome is another example of an autoimmune disorder that attacks the peripheral nervous system, affecting the nerves and muscles. As a result, people with this condition experience loss of sensation and muscle weakness.

  • Neuropathy

Neuropathy damages a nerve or nerve group, causing numbness, muscle weakness, and chronic pain. It can even lead to thinning of muscle fibers and tissues.

What are the symptoms of muscle degradation?

Muscle atrophy symptoms include balance problems, loss of muscle coordination, facial weakness, tingling sensation in arms and legs, vision problems, fatigue, and more. In some cases, individuals with this condition also experience difficulty speaking and swallowing. Due to these health problems, people with muscle atrophy are also at risk for depression.

Extreme cases of muscle atrophy involve paralysis and sudden weakness on one side of the body due to reduced muscle mass. It’s also common to notice that one arm or leg is smaller than the other.

How do specialists diagnose muscle atrophy?

Specialists will ask for your complete medical history and encourage you to share the symptoms and any difficulties you’re experiencing. Hence, they’ll inquire about previous injuries and existing conditions. They will also note the prescriptions, medications, and supplements you’re taking.

Some tests needed for diagnosis include complete blood count (CBC), radiographic testing, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), muscle or nerve biopsy, electromyography (EMG), computed tomography (CT) scan, and nerve conduction studies. These medical procedures, combined with your medical history, will help doctors, chiropractors, and specialists arrive at an accurate diagnosis to present an effective treatment plan.

What are the treatments for muscle atrophy?

Muscle atrophy treatment options range from simple lifestyle changes to invasive medical procedures. Below is a list of effective treatment plans for muscle degradation.

Lifestyle changes

Patients and their loved ones always ask, “Can muscle atrophy be reversed?” In most cases, muscle atrophy can be treated through proper nutrition and regular exercise. Consume large amounts of fruits and vegetables and choose protein-rich, low carbohydrate, and low-fat food. It’s also advisable to incorporate lean meats like fish and chicken to maintain muscle mass.

Physical therapy

Physical therapy exercises help prevent immobility and improve your range of motion. They also increase muscle strength while stimulating circulation to the different parts of the body. Consult with a licensed physical therapist to ensure a speedy and effective recovery.

Functional electrical stimulation

Functional electrical stimulation or FES counteracts the effects of muscle atrophy by delivering small electrical pulses to weakened muscles. During this procedure, a technician attaches electrodes to the affected area. The electrical current from the electrodes triggers muscle contraction movement, helping patients improve their quality of life. 

Surgery

In extreme cases, muscle atrophy recovery requires surgery. These medical procedures are recommended to patients with injuries and neurological conditions. Malnourished patients can also undergo surgery to reduce the effects of muscle degradation.

Muscle atrophy is a serious condition that affects a person’s mobility, coordination, vision, and sensation. Fortunately, various treatments are available, including lifestyle changes, physical therapy, FES, and surgery. However, should you experience muscle weakness, fatigue, difficulty speaking, and swallowing, consult a specialist immediately for an accurate diagnosis and customized treatment plan. 

Check LifeClinic’s blog for more information about musculoskeletal diseases, their symptoms, causes, preventative measures, and treatment options.

Dr. Reza Alizadeh

Dr. Reza is the visionary behind LifeClinic. His leadership is the foundation for the patient and team member experience, and overall direction of the LifeClinic. As the creator of IMJT, Dr. Reza continues to be the primary teacher on this technique.

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