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Muscle Wasting: Causes, Symptoms, Risk Factors, Treatment, and Prevention

Muscle wasting is the decrease in muscle mass due to lack of physical activity or proper nourishment.  It is more common in people who lead a sedentary lifestyle than those who are highly active. Muscle wasting is also termed as muscle loss or muscle withering. It occurs commonly in the muscles of the hands and feet.

Muscle WastingWhat is Muscle Wasting?

Muscle wasting, also known as muscle atrophy, is a loss of muscle tissue caused by decreased mobility or an underlying disease. Many neuromuscular and chronic inflammatory diseases are closely associated with muscle weakness, skeletal muscle atrophy, and muscle fatigue. Depending on the underlying cause, muscle atrophy can be partial or complete wasting away of muscles.

Muscle atrophy develops when there is damage to the nerves that control the muscle fibers and in bedridden people. Muscle wasting resulting from a disease or injury, makes it difficult to move the limbs.

What are the Causes of Muscle Wasting?

Muscle wasting is mainly caused due to physical inactivity and decreased mobility. Some of the common causes of muscle wasting include:

  • Aging: As the age advances, most individuals become physically inactive and lead a sedentary lifestyle. This can result in degenerative loss of skeletal muscle mass. After 30 years of age, people who are less active lose about 3% to 5% muscle mass every decade. Muscle loss with aging is known as sarcopenia.
  • Malnutrition: Lack of nutrients that are necessary for muscle development can contribute to muscle atrophy, which can result in serious illnesses. Problems with absorbing nutrients from the food, eating disorder, and poor diet can result in malnutrition.
  • Neurological diseases: Several neurological conditions, such as spinal cord atrophy, stroke, cerebral palsy, and neuropathy can cause muscle wasting. Also, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Guillain-Barre syndrome and polio can impair the communication between the nerves and muscles. Inability of the muscles to respond to the nerve signals can result in lack of mobility, thereby resulting in muscle wasting.
  • Arthritis: Arthritis causes stiffness and inflammation of the joints, which causes difficulty in moving from one place to another. The pain associated with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis makes a person lead an extremely sedentary lifestyle, which leads to muscle atrophy.
  • Prolonged hospitalization: In some cases, prolonged illness or an injury requires a lengthy hospital stay, which can show a profound impact on the muscle tissues. An extended recovery time can lead to muscular degeneration, in-turn causing muscle wasting.

Symptoms of Muscle Wasting:

Atrophy of muscles can reduce the basic strength that is essential to carry out everyday activities. The common symptoms associated with muscle wasting include:

  • Loss of muscle coordination
  • Weakness or numbness in the limbs
  • Impaired balance while walking
  • Tingling or weakness of the extremities
  • Fatigue and a general feeling of illness
  • Progressive weakness
  • Facial weakness
  • Gradual memory loss

Some of the severe symptoms associated with muscle wasting that require immediate medical attention include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Inability to move a body part (paralysis)
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Changes in vision
  • An abrupt weakness on one side of the body
  • Severe headache

Risk Factors for Muscle Wasting:

People who are at a risk of developing muscle wasting or atrophy include:

  • Patients who are unable to exercise
  • People who are on bedrest and cannot move some of the body parts due to a medical condition
  • Individuals leading a sedentary lifestyle
  • Rapid weight loss

Diagnosis of Muscle Wasting:

To diagnose muscle wasting, the doctor performs a physical examination and reviews recent or old injuries and previously diagnosed medical conditions. The doctor would recommend the following tests and diagnostic procedure to rule out certain conditions:

  • Blood tests: A sample of blood is collected and tested for the levels of creatine kinase (CK) enzyme. High levels of creatine kinase enzyme indicate that the muscles are deteriorating. However, it is a nonspecific test as many other conditions can cause elevated CK levels in the blood.
  • X-rays: A series of X-rays are taken to obtain images of the body, which help to reveal the extent of muscle damage.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): MRI scan helps to choose a muscle for a biopsy test in patients with severe muscle atrophy.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan: CT scan helps to create cross-sectional images of the muscle to identify its strength and functional loss.
  • Electromyography (EMG): An electromyography test records the electrical activity in the muscle to identify the underlying cause for loss or muscle or atrophy.
  • Muscle biopsy: A sample of muscle tissue is collected and examined under a microscope to analyze the abnormalities in the sample.

Treatment of Muscle Wasting:

The treatment for muscle wasting depends upon the extent of muscle loss and the underlying cause of the condition. The treatment options for muscle wasting include:

  • Physical therapy: A physiotherapist would teach certain exercises that would make the movement of arms and legs easier.
  • Ultrasound therapy: The sound waves are used to treat chronic pain conditions, improve circulation in the muscles and promote tissue healing.
  • Surgery: The doctor would perform a surgery if any contracture (stiffness or constriction in the connective tissue) deformity is causing muscle atrophy.

Prevention of Muscle Wasting:

The following are the measures that help to reduce the risk of atrophy:

  • Ensure to take complete nutritious diet.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Eat more amount of protein.
  • Get enough sleep.


1. Does muscle wasting result in any complications?

Yes. Failure to seek immediate treatment for muscle wasting can result in potential complications, such as decreased mobility, permanent loss of muscle strength, and paralysis.


Muscle atrophy. Accessed December 6, 2018.
Muscle atrophy. Medline Plus. Accessed December 6, 2018.
Disease-Induced Skeletal Muscle Atrophy and Fatigue. Pub Med. Accessed December 6, 2018.
Muscle atrophy. Fus foundation. Accessed December 6, 2018.

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