Muscle Atrophy

By Tiffany Tseng. May 7th 2016

What is it?

Muscle atrophy takes place when a muscle partially or completely wastes away and its mass decreases. Most cases of muscle atrophy are usually results of other pre-existing medical conditions that include the loss of muscle mass as a side effect. Loss of muscle mass can be characterized by fatigue, extreme muscle weakness, or the actual "shrinking" of the physical body of the affected individual. Individuals who suffer from muscle atrophy may experience a significant decrease in quality of life, as the simplest actions usually performed without a thought may become difficult or impossible. For example, bending down to pick something up from the floor will be a difficult task, and the risk of falling when walking may also increase significantly. It is important to seek medical care when muscle atrophy is present in order to hopefully diagnose and treat its root cause and increase one's quality of life.


The deterioration of muscle mass is often a consequence or side effect of other medical conditions that are already affecting the body. Depending on the cause, each treatment will vary, as the goal is to treat the condition in hopes of eliminating its symptoms and effects. Some medical conditions that have muscle atrophy as one of its signs and symptoms may include:

  • Cancer: Muscle atrophy due to weight loss or loss of appetite is a common side effect for individuals undergoing treatment for cancer. The reversibility of muscle atrophy will depend on the case of treatment as well as at the discretion of the physician; he or she may prescribe supplements that may help retain muscle mass.
  • Starvation: Muscle atrophy may be seen in individuals who have not had proper nutrition for long periods of time. Through history, muscle atrophy due to starvation can be seen in malnourished prisoners of war, captives, or individuals from less industrialized countries. This process can be reversed by eating a healthy diet.
  • Anorexia nervosa: This eating disorder, characterized by the refusal of food due to an obsessive maintenance of body weight, can also lead to muscle atrophy. Similar to starvation, the symptoms of muscle atrophy can be reversed with therapy and adopting a healthy diet.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): This medical condition is characterized by chronic shortness of breath, bronchitis, and emphysema commonly due to tobacco smoking. In advanced stages, COPD can lead to cachexia, which cites muscle atrophy as one of its characteristics. Depending on the seriousness of COPD, there is a chance that muscle atrophy may be reversed by successful treating COPD.
  • Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)/Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS): commonly known as a sexually transmitted disease, HIV is the main cause for AIDS, which may result in severe weakening of the immune system and lead to muscle atrophy.
  • Drug abuse: Recreational drug abuse, such as the abuse of methamphetamine, can lead to muscle atrophy and possibly death. If you know someone who is suffering muscle atrophy due to excessive drug abuse, be sure to call your local hotline for help.
  • Age-related sarcopenia: Rather than the simple degradation of muscle mass, sarcopenia is often characterized by the replacement of muscle fibers with fats or other tissues that does not support the body as well. Sarcopenia, along with osteoporosis and muscle weakness, are components of the frailty syndrome marked by the onset of age. This can be effectively reversed by exercising and modifying the diet of the elderly.


Common treatments for muscle atrophy might include:

  • Eating a healthier diet
  • Adopting a healthier lifestyle

Sometimes, situations where the body is immobilized for long periods of time can also lead to muscle atrophy from lack of use. Hence, individuals who require extended stays in the hospital without much movement may eventually suffer from muscle atrophy. Some examples of prolonged immobilization may include:

  • Extended bed rest
  • Casts placed on limbs due to broken bones
  • Long term hospitalization

Fortunately, if the cause of muscle atrophy is from lack of movement, exercising and therapy can be used as an effective treatment to restore muscle mass. Be sure to consult a doctor on the exercise therapy appropriate for your situation before implementing any treatment.


Perhaps the best way to prevent muscle atrophy due to other medical conditions will be to adopt and maintain a healthy lifestyle in hopes of avoiding health complications altogether. Small, healthy habits, such as quitting smoking cigarettes, practicing safe sex, and not using recreational drugs can prevent common causes of muscle atrophy.

For aging individuals and the elderly, adopting an active lifestyle that includes a light exercise regimen can be an effective prevention method for age-related sarcopenia. While it may be difficult for individuals who are subjected to prolonged immobilization due to broken bones or hospitalization to take preventative measures against muscle atrophy, post-care exercise therapy may be implemented afterwards to regain lost muscle mass.

For individuals who are undergoing therapy that cites muscle atrophy as a side effect or consequence, the prescribing physician may be able to help by suggesting supplements or exercises that may help retain muscle mass. Either way, be sure to see your physician if you are suspecting a significant loss of muscle mass or muscle atrophy.


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