Muscle atrophy or muscle wasting is a medical term defined as a decrease in muscle mass. There are generally two forms of muscle atrophy; disuse atrophy and neurogenic atrophy. Both present similarly but have significant differences in the cause of muscle wasting. The former is a loss of muscle due to lack of physical activity while the latter is due to a problem with the nerves that connect to the muscle itself.
What causes muscle atrophy?
Disuse muscular atrophy is thought the be the most common type of muscle wasting affecting people today. The bedridden elderly is often affected. They are usually frail and weak, unable to get out of bed to exercise their muscles, leading to the wasting of muscle mass. Another common culprit is sedentary lifestyles that discourage any form of strenuous physical activity. Most people adhere to this lifestyle and are unwilling to change despite modest amounts of exercise only being needed, resulting in lower muscle mass overall.
Neurogenic muscular atrophy is much less common but far more difficult to treat. It is often the result of injuries or disease of the nerves that supply muscles.
Well known diseases causing muscular atrophy include multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Guillain-Barre syndrome, which are often irreversible conditions. Specific nerves can also be interrupted, leading to muscle compromise, like in cases of herniated discs. Compression of nerves can also see in other places on the body, leading to muscle atrophy, as seen with carpal tunnel syndrome.
Other causes of muscle atrophy include:
- Muscular dystrophy and other diseases of the muscle
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Long-term corticosteroid therapy
What are the symptoms of atrophied muscles?
Atrophied muscle symptoms often depend on the underlying condition leading to muscle wasting. Additionally, the particular muscle groups affected will determine what type of symptoms will ultimately appear. However, the following are some of the most common signs and symptoms of muscle atrophy.
Weak muscles: Due to a loss of strength resulting from muscle losing its tone and becoming flabby. Muscle atrophy sufferers may find even basic exercises like lifting objects difficult to accomplish.
Muscle damage: Can lead to the development of a stooped posture that becomes more and more prominent over time. This may lead to difficulties standing or sitting straight.
Stroke and heart attack: Due to your heart having difficulty pumping blood and occurring in extreme cases. Patients often feel a sudden increase in heart rate, chest pain, and weakness with physical activity. This may be due to the heart not being able to pump as well as it needs to due to years of physical inactivity.
Pain: Simply moving the affected limb may be painful for those affected by muscular atrophy.
Other possible symptoms include
- Numbness or tingling in arms or legs
- Progressive loss of movement
- Progressive weakness and numbness in the affected muscular region
- Gradual difficulty walking and speaking, memory loss, tingling, or weakness of extremities
- Impaired balance and coordination
- Loss of muscle coordination
- Balance problems and falls
- Difficulty with speaking and swallowing
- Facial weakness
Diagnosis of muscle atrophy
Often only a clinical examination is all that is required to determine if muscular atrophy has occurred. However, several tests can be ordered to identify any potential underlying cause. These may include:
Radiological tests: Includes imaging test such as MRI, CT scan, and X-rays, all of which have been proven to help confirm the presence of muscle atrophy. Imaging tests such as these can be used to look at bone and muscle structures searching for any possible abnormality and can even assess functional capacity of muscles by using a test called a positron emission tomography (PET) scan.
Blood tests: Can be used to find specific metabolic and genetic markers that may point to a potential cause of muscle atrophy
Electromyography and nerve condition studies: Used to assess the electrical activity of muscles and never transmission.
Nerve or muscle biopsy: Occasionally required to confirm the diagnosis of some muscular dystrophies
Treating muscle atrophy
Muscle atrophy treatment will primarily focus on strengthening affected muscles and relieving pain associated with it. Considering that not all cases of muscular atrophy are the same, most treatment plans will often be uniquely tailored to the individual patient. The following are just some examples of muscular atrophy therapies.
Physical therapy: The most common treatment for muscular atrophy, helping to strengthen weaken muscle as well as other muscles of the body. Physical therapy can be done via hands-on sessions with a physical therapist or learned to be performed at home. However, physical therapy is only effective if done regularly.
Medications: Possibly includes the use of pain relievers and various essential vitamins.
Electrotherapy: Uses electricity to stimulate muscle activity. This form of treatment should be followed by muscle movement to ensure good results.
Daily activities: This form of therapy is especially useful for those who are bedridden and unable to perform more strenuous physical tasks. This may involve manageable activities such as rolling on the bed, folding clothes, or even simply chopping vegetables. Patients are encouraged to perform these activities on a daily basis as to increase their strength slowly over time.
Alternative therapies: May include therapies such as chiropractic massage, acupressure, or acupuncture. These forms of treatments are highly individualized and do not guarantee any form of benefit, but may help stimulate the muscle.
Muscle atrophy diet
Eat plenty of protein: Eating a diet rich in protein is key for improving muscle quality, developing new muscle fibers, and maintaining muscle mass overall. It is recommended for adult men to consume about 56g of protein per day, with adult women recommended to consume about 46g per day. Foods rich in protein include turkey breast, fish, cheese, pork loin, tofu, lean beef, beans, eggs, yogurt, dairy products, and nuts.
Increase your carbohydrate intake: A major source of fuel for your muscle and body as a whole and is recommended as part of a balanced diet. Building muscle requires energy, and it’s recommended that at least 45 to 65 percent of your total calorie intake is derived from carbohydrates. Great options include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, plain yogurt, and milk, as they can have acceptable amounts of fiber and be free of added sugars.
Eat good fats such as omega-3 fatty acids: These good fats help prevent the breakdown of muscle by interfering with the inflammatory process. It is recommended to consume one to two grams of omega-3 fatty acids every day. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include sardines, salmon, soybeans, flax seeds, walnuts, tofu, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, shrimp, and winter squash.
Exercises to treat muscle atrophy
Find a personal trainer: It may be difficult for you to perform many of the intense physical activities needed to help increase muscle mass. This is where the help from a personal trainer will come in handy, improving your chances of reversing muscle atrophy effects. A personal trainer can help guide you through various exercises, provide motivation, and do their best to prevent you from sustaining injury.
Start easy: It is important to remember that while your mind may still believe you are strong, your weakened and atrophied muscles will tell you otherwise. Starting slow will prevent injury from overexerting yourself.
Begin with water exercise: This form of exercise can help dull muscle pain, quickly tone atrophied muscle, rebuild muscle memory, and relax sore muscles. Water exercise will also be easier on your joints.
Walk around the pool: Using the resistance caused by water, you can help work out the lower part of your body at a much lower risk of causing injury. Start by walking for 10 minutes with water at waist height. As you progress, you can add water barbells or paddles for added resistance.
Do knee lifts in the pool: Position yourself against the pool wall placing both feet flat on the bottom. Now lift your knees in a marching fashion. One by one, bring your knee to hip height. Do this for 10 repetitions on each leg, then switch. Add more repetitions and sets as you see fit.
Water pushups: Facing forward toward a pool wall with water at waist height and still be able to rest your arms on the pool deck, use your hands to raise your body up out of the water. Hold this lifted position for a few seconds, then slowly lower yourself back into the pool
Body weight exercises: This form of exercise has the benefit of not needing any weighted equipment. The following are some of the best bodyweight exercises that can be done at your own pace and help to built muscle:
Squats: Performed by first standing straight and squatting down as if standing on an imaginary chair. It may also be beneficial to put both arms straightforward to maintain balance. Hold this position for a couple seconds before standing up again, then repeat.
Lunges: Start by placing your hands on your hips and then taking a large step forward with one food and keep the other stationary. Hold this position for a couple of seconds keeping both knees bent at 90 degrees. Then push off your forward foot to bring yourself back to starting position. Now repeat on the opposite side.
Triceps dips: With the aid of a sturdy chair, sit directly in front of it on the floor with both legs extended straight outward. Now using both hands, grab the other edges of the chair behind you and push yourself up, then back down again.
Basic ab crunches: Start by lying on your back and with both legs bent and feet flat on the ground. Place both hands on the back of your head and pull your shoulders towards the ceiling into a “half sit up” to perform a crunch. Repeat this exercise as much as you can.
Suffering from muscular atrophy can be a severely disabling condition, especially in the elderly. However, it may also affect younger individuals afflicted by a certain type of genetic diseases. If you are concerned that you may be suffering from muscular atrophy or need some assistance in performing exercises, seeking out your doctor or a trained physical therapist can help you find the best therapies for your particular condition.