While the medical term is muscle atrophy, most of us refer to it as muscle wasting or wasting of the muscles. Actually, there are two types of muscle atrophy to be concerned with, one more severe than the other. The first type is called ‘disuse atrophy’ while the other is referred to as ‘neurogenic atrophy,’ and while many of the symptoms may be the same, the causes are dissimilar and the treatments will vary as well.
Common Causes for Disuse Muscle Atrophy
Most of the time muscle atrophy is simply the result of disuse. While you would think that the leading cause of disuse atrophy is amongst people who are bedridden and unable to move about in order to exercise the muscles, the real culprit for the majority of muscle atrophy cases is a sedentary lifestyle. The good news is that with vigorous exercise this type of atrophy can be reversed. The bad news is, many of us are unwilling to change our way of life in order to get the exercise we need.
Unfortunately, what we fail to realize is that the heart is also a muscle. Yes, it is an organ but it is also a muscle which needs to be exercised in order to stay healthy. People who are bedridden also are prone to muscle atrophy but unfortunately there isn’t much they can do about it unless they are blessed with a physical therapist or a concerned family member who will take the time to therapeutically work their muscles. While it may be impossible to totally reverse muscle atrophy caused by disuse in bedridden patients, it is possible to keep it from progressing any further.
Common Causes for Neurogenic Muscle Atrophy
While neurogenic muscle atrophy is far less common than disuse atrophy it is also much more difficult to treat. Neurogenic atrophy is the result of injuries or diseases of the nerves that supply muscles. Diseases such as poliomyelitis, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Guillain-Barre syndrome, myotonic dystrophy and muscular dystrophy are common causes for neurogenic muscle atrophy.
However, some injuries also cause nerve damage which compromises by compression the nerves which supply muscles. There are times when this may be reversible but other times, if the compression is caused by a disease such as multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease or stroke, the damage (atrophy) may be irreversible and progressive. Sometimes nerve function can be interrupted in the brain, spinal cord or even in a peripheral nerve. A good example of this is a herniated disc. This will cause compression of spinal cord which then affects the nerve and can result in neurogenic muscle atrophy. Perhaps one of the most well-known causes of neurogenic muscle atrophy is carpal tunnel syndrome.
Signs and Symptoms of Muscle Atrophy
Muscle atrophy from disuse is characterized, to put it bluntly, by weak flabby muscles. The signs and symptoms are easy to spot both on ourselves as well as on others. Muscles which are not exercised become weak and may eventually atrophy. The signs and symptoms of neurogenic muscle atrophy are a bit more difficult for the layperson to recognize quickly. Medical dictionaries list the number one symptom as postural muscle weakness. However, that definition requires another definition in order to even understand what they’re talking about. The postural muscles are also called antigravity muscles, but a simple way to look at it is postural muscles are those which help us to stand erect.
Consequently, one of the first signs of neurogenic muscle atrophy is a stooped posture. Other symptoms may include back pain, walking problems, Achilles tendon contractures, ham string contractures, limited range of neck motion, a rigid spine and even heart failure. Again, the heart is a muscle and should it atrophy, it will most likely also fail. Some of these symptoms can be visibly detected even by a layperson, but other symptoms such as increased creatine kinase levels need diagnostic tests performed by medical professionals in order to detect.
Treatments for Muscle Atrophy
Depending on which type of muscle atrophy you have been diagnosed with, treatments may vary significantly. Disuse muscle atrophy can often be corrected with the proper amount and type of exercise while neurogenic atrophy may be treated in one or more ways. Sometimes medications are prescribed while other times a surgical procedure is necessary. Should medications be prescribed, they will most often include a course of anti-inflammatories such as corticosteroids in order to reduce inflammation and compression of the affected nerves. In the case of such conditions like herniated discs, surgery might be the recommended course of action.
Many times osteopaths perform musculoskeletal manipulations in order to reduce the compression of nerves within the spinal column. You have probably heard friends, family members and neighbors refer to going to the chiropractor for an adjustment. The purpose of these ‘adjustments’ is to literally stretch the spinal column in order to relieve the pressure on pinched or compressed nerves. Unfortunately, there are times when options for treatment are limited such as incurable and progressive diseases. With modern advances in medicine more and more treatments are being found every day which can delay the progression, to some extent, and/or alleviate much of the pain or discomfort but cures are still off in the future.
Unless you have a debilitating disease or are bedridden, the best treatment is to get up and get moving. Exercise as rigorously as you can, even if you need to take it slowly at first. Since age is a major factor in muscle atrophy from disuse, older Americans should make it a priority to take daily walks, go swimming and even join a cardio class for seniors. The key is to use those muscles so that they don’t waste away. It might take some extra effort to keep yourself on a schedule, but the benefits are well worth the effort.