Muscle Atrophy Symptoms, Causes and Treatments

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.

Comments 20
  1. Comments are too general and vague regarding Guillain-Barre Syndrome and neurogenic treatment. The explanation to the what neurogenic atrophy is fine but not specific actions to take other than see another doctor or therapist.

  2. This article stated all the things I've been screaming about to my doctors and receiving only neglect. Slow appointments, not really hearing about my symptoms, and letting me suffer with horrible pain. I have a compressed disc hitting the sciatic nerve. My left buttock & leg are atrophying quickly. I need a simple microdiscectomy and not one doctor on HMO will do this. They want to big surgery later when my bone density score improves. Meanwhile I'm suffering. I'm doing protein powder, taking pain meds, and walking as much as I can. My body is becoming immune to the meds although they do take the edge off a bit still. The pain in the leg is so bad I can't walk far. I'm talking screaming pain. I'll have to change insurance companies to get help. HMO's only manage their paperwork well, but do NOT manage to care for patients. They are killing me in my opinion with their lack of care and attention to the problems I keep stating. It's all about money to them and screw us.

  3. I thought this article did a very good job of differentiating the two types of muscle atrophy. In my case it was important to understand that there two categories of muscle atrophy exist.

  4. I have damage to my C7, C8 and T1 nerves from my spine, and am having an operation (laminectomy) to correct or improve this situation.

    I would have liked the above article to provide information on whether my muscle atrophy can be reversed from this operation and what I might do before and after the operation to improve the situation.

    I would have like more information, perhaps through a series of links.

  5. Wondering what I could do… as age progresses I notice changes and it's helpful to get direct knowledge versus having to sift through medical jargon/data in order to get a simplistic response. My disc problems were never associated with muscle loss and/or tension headaches. Thanx for having this.

  6. You completely missed pro inflammatory states as a class. If a body is in one, muscle loss occurs no matter what you try. These days these are very often caused by gut dysbiosis (screwing up the microbes in the small intestine) which is extremely common due to our continual use of biocidal pesticides and herbicides on everything (triclosan in soaps & in plastic, Roundup/Glyphosphate on all our food, and 'conditioners' like polysorbate-80 for the convenience of the food industry). This upsets the delicate balance of the villi/microvilli, gut mucosa and the gut biota, which in turn ruins the lymphatic system. The use of conditions in processed food is huge. Glyphosphate/Roundup is in such large use it is in breast milk and rain. Triclosan is in everything (unregulated) as an advertising gimmick to create anti-bacteria hysteria.

    Nobody yet has been able to explain how I went from a body builder lifting 450lbs with a single leg (at lots of reps), picking up the fridge (while it was full) to move it over), picking up my dad’s entire oak work bench will all the tools on the shelves, carrying my wife with one arm for hours… in under a year. It was 15 years ago that I went from carrying her around the house (she was disabled) with one arm for hours and forgetting to put her down – to not being able to lift her no matter what position we started in. I am still losing muscle. I never stop using my muscles, so they just rip. We depend on wood for heat and winters are COLD so I have to chop wood – and that results a long period healing (longer that I have before the next winter). I just don't heal right, or put on muscle any more. Too much work leaves me in that "hit by a truck, day after big workout" state for 9 months. My testosterone is supposed to be fine but I do not make muscle. It is autumn / nearly winter here in Oz and my right shoulder and arm are still a mess from chopping wood last winter.

  7. Thank you for the info. I feel very overwhelmed because I don't know what I'm suffering from. I have severe leg and knee pain along with muscle loss on my right leg which is becoming very weak and flobby. Your website was very informative. Thank you.

  8. Please add food supplement and/or nutritional info for low intensity or starting of this situation along with exercise.

  9. Great article, perfectly explained and understandable. I am losing muscle mass in my left leg and I am having a lot of pain from my sciatic nerve and possibly from other nerves because the muscle loss is also in the front of my leg.

  10. I can sympathize with Geri. I went half the year with pain and tried to explain my symptoms and my HMO just blew me off. They are more concerned with reducing costs than listening and helping the patient and these are the people we entrust our care to. The oath they take means nothing, only saving money does, as they take yours in premiums every month. I had to see an out of network doctor and take that information back to my HMO and challenge them. I had to do it at my own expense and that's sad. I feel sorry for those who don't have the ability to do that and just accept what their HMO tells them. They do not always look out for the patient's best interest.

  11. Hi there, thank you for this. Do you know the options if this atrophy has occurred in the temporalis muscle? My boyfriend had an aggressive skull-based surgery last year and I believe the trauma caused this atrophy. Please help, thank you.

  12. My mother is affected by muscular atrophy past 10 year, any treatment pls give me answer, is it curable or not?

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