Muscle atrophy is when muscles waste away. It’s usually caused by a lack of physical activity.

When a disease or injury makes it difficult or impossible for you to move an arm or leg, the lack of mobility can result in muscle wasting. Over time, without regular movement, your arm or leg can start to appear smaller but not shorter than the one you’re able to move.

In some cases, muscle wasting can be reversed with a proper diet, exercise, or physical therapy.

Symptoms of muscle atrophy

You may have muscle atrophy if:

One of your arms or legs is noticeably smaller than the other.
You’re experiencing marked weakness in one limb.
You’ve been physically inactive for a very long time.
Call your doctor to schedule a complete medical examination if you believe you may have muscle atrophy or if you are unable to move normally. You may have an undiagnosed condition that requires treatment.

Causes of muscle atrophy

Unused muscles can waste away if you’re not active. But even after it begins, this type of atrophy can often be reversed with exercise and improved nutrition.

Muscle atrophy can also happen if you’re bedridden or unable to move certain body parts due to a medical condition. Astronauts, for example, can experience muscle atrophy after a few days of weightlessness.

Other causes for muscle atrophy include:

lack of physical activity for an extended period of time
alcohol-associated myopathy, a pain and weakness in muscles due to excessive drinking over long periods of time
injuries, such as a torn rotator cuff or broken bones
spinal cord or peripheral nerve injuries
long-term corticosteroid therapy
Some medical conditions 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, affects nerve cells that control voluntary muscle movement
dermatomyositis, causes muscle weakness and skin rash
Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune condition that leads to nerve inflammation and muscle weakness
multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune condition in which the body destroys the protective coverings of nerves
muscular dystrophy, an inherited condition that causes muscle weakness
neuropathy, damage to a nerve or nerve group, resulting in loss of sensation or function
osteoarthritis, causes reduced motion in the joints
polio, a viral disease affecting muscle tissue that can lead to paralysis
polymyositis, an inflammatory disease
rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory autoimmune condition that affects the joints
spinal muscular atrophy, a hereditary condition causing arm and leg muscles to waste away

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How is muscle atrophy diagnosed?

If muscle atrophy is caused by another condition, you’ll got to undergo testing to diagnose the condition.

Your doctor will request your complete medical record . you’ll likely be asked to:

tell them about old or recent injuries and previously diagnosed medical conditions
list prescriptions, over-the counter medications, and supplements you’re taking
give a detailed description of your symptoms
Your doctor can also order tests to assist with the diagnosis and to rule out certain diseases. These tests may include:

blood tests
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 counting on the results of those tests.

How is muscle atrophy treated?

Treatment will depend on your diagnosis and the severity of your muscle loss. Any underlying medical conditions must be addressed. Common treatments for muscle atrophy include:

physical therapy
ultrasound therapy
dietary changes
Recommended exercises might include water exercises to help make movement easier.

Physical therapists can teach you the correct ways to exercise. They can also move your arms and legs for you if you have trouble moving.

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

If your tendons, ligaments, skin, or muscles are too tight and prevent you from moving, surgery may be necessary. This condition is called contracture deformity.

Surgery may be able to correct contracture deformity if your muscle atrophy is due to malnutrition. It may also be able to correct your condition if a torn tendon caused your muscle atrophy.

If malnutrition is the cause of muscle atrophy, your doctor may suggest dietary changes or supplements.

Major risk factor of muscle atrophy

Several factors can contribute to muscle atrophy, such as:
remaining immobile for long periods due to illness or injury.
neurological problems.
certain medical conditions, such as arthritis, myositis, ALS, and MS.