What causes muscle wasting? 17 possible conditions

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Muscle Atrophy

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.

You may have muscle loss if one of your limbs appears smaller (not shorter) than the other. Schedule a physical exam to determine the cause of the loss. Your doctor will determine what treatment you need. In some cases, muscle wasting can be reversed with a proper diet, exercise, or physical therapy.

Causes of Muscle Atrophy

Unused muscles can waste away if you are not active. However, this takes time. 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 are subject to some muscle atrophy after a few days of weightlessness.

Other causes for muscle atrophy include:

  • lack of physical activity (for any reason)
  • aging
  • alcohol-associated myopathy (pain and weakness in muscles due to excessive drinking over long periods of time)
  • burns
  • injuries and broken bones
  • malnutrition
  • spinal cord injuries
  • stroke
  • 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), which affects nerve cells that control voluntary muscle movement
  • dermatomyositis (a muscle disease)
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome (an autoimmune disease that leads to nerve inflammation and muscle weakness)
  • multiple sclerosis (MS, an autoimmune disease that can make it difficult to move)
  • 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 (the most common form of arthritis; causes reduced motion in the joints)
  • polio (a viral disease affecting muscle tissue that can lead to paralysis)
  • polymyositis (an inflammatory disease)
  • rheumatoid arthritis (an autoimmune disease)
  • spinal muscular atrophy (SMA, a hereditary disease causing arm and leg muscles to waste away)

Signs 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

Contact your doctor to have a complete medical examination if you believe you may have muscle atrophy or if you are unable to move in a normal manner. You may have an undiagnosed condition that requires treatment. Your doctor will be able to provide you with dietary and exercise options.

How Muscle Atrophy Is Diagnosed

Your doctor will take a complete medical history and to understand all of your symptoms. Tell him or her about old or recent injuries you’ve experienced and previously diagnosed medical conditions. List prescriptions, over-the counter medications, and supplements you are taking and your symptoms.

Your doctor may order additional tests to help with the diagnosis and to rule out certain diseases. These tests may include:

  • blood tests
  • X-rays
  • 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:

  • exercise
  • physical therapy
  • ultrasound therapy
  • surgery
  • dietary changes

Exercise includes water exercises that are helpful if you have difficulty moving.

Physical therapists can teach you the correct ways to exercise. A physical therapist can move your arms and legs for you if you have trouble moving because of a medical condition.

Ultrasound therapy is a noninvasive procedure that uses sound waves to aid in healing.

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 it if your muscle atrophy is due to malnutrition.

Your doctor will advise you about proper nutrition and suggest proper dietary supplements if he or she believes they are necessary for you.

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.

1

Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy occurs when nerves malfunction because they're damaged or destroyed. You'll notice a tingling, numbness, or weakness, and possibly sweating, constipation, or diarrhea.

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2

Multiple Sclerosis Overview

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. MS can cause varying symptoms that appear with a wide range of severity, from mild discomfort to complete disability.

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3

ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease)

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is a noncontagious, degenerative disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. A chronic disorder, it causes a loss of control of voluntary muscles, also affecting the nerves tha...

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4

Necrotizing Vasculitis

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Necrotizing vasculitis is the inflammation of blood vessel walls. It can interrupt blood flow, causing skin, muscle, and blood vessel damage, and death of tissues and organs. Its symptoms can affect the entire body.

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5

Polio

Poliomyelitis, or polio, is a highly contagious disease that is caused by a virus that attacks the body's nervous system. It is most likely to be contracted by children under five years old.

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6

Slipped (Herniated) Disk

The vertebrae in your spine are cushioned by disks composed of a hard outer ring with a gelatinous material inside. Injury or weakness can cause the inner portion of the disk to break through the outer portion.

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7

Type 2 Diabetes Overview

Type 2 diabetes, is a common chronic metabolic disease that leads to abnormally high levels of blood sugar in the blood. This blood sugar is also referred to as "glucose."

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8

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and Mad Cow Disease

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is an infectious disease that causes the brain to degenerate. The hallmark of this brain disease is an inability to think clearly and take care of oneself. Over time, the disease cause...

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9

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia is an eating disorder in which obsessive worry about body weight and the food you eat can result in severe weight loss. Symptoms include constipation, missed period, and thinning hair.

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10

Hypercalcemia

Hypercalcemia is a condition in which you have too much calcium in your blood. Serious cases could cause symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, constipation, and weakness.

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11

Kwashiorkor

Kwashiorkor is the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in developing countries. It is a form of malnutrition caused by not getting enough protein in your diet. Every cell in your body contains protein. Yo...

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12

Osteomalacia

Osteomalacia is a weakening of the bones due to problems with bone formation or the bone building process. It is not the same as osteoporosis, which is a weakening of living bone that has already been formed and i...

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13

AIDS

HIV causes progressive failure of the immune system, making the body far more susceptible to infections and cancer.

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14

Malabsorption Syndrome

Malabsorption syndrome refers to a number of disorders in which the intestine's ability to absorb certain nutrients, such as vitamin B12 and iron, into the bloodstream is negatively affected.Proteins, carbohydrates...

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15

Becker Muscular Dystrophy

Becker muscular dystrophy is a genetic condition that causes your muscles to become damaged and weakened over time, resulting in loss of muscle tissue. If you have this condition, you could begin to experience problem...

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16

All About Abetalipoproteinemia

Abetalipoproteinemia (ABL) is an inherited condition that prevents the body from completely absorbing certain dietary fats. Without treatment, it can cause vitamin deficiencies that may have long term effects on you...

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17

Axillary Nerve Dysfunction

Axillary nerve dysfunction (AND) or injury is also called neuropathy of the axillary nerve. It describes a loss of movement or lack of sensation in the shoulder area of the body. Stress or damage to the axillary nerve...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.
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