Muscle atrophy is the loss of skeletal muscle mass. It can be caused by immobility, aging, malnutrition, medications, or a wide range of injuries or diseases that impact the musculoskeletal or nervous system. Muscle atrophy leads to muscle weakness and causes disability.
Disuse causes rapid muscle atrophy and often occurs during injury or illness that requires immobilization of a limb or bed rest. Depending on the duration of disuse and the health of the individual, this may be fully reversed with activity. Malnutrition first causes fat loss but may progress to muscle atrophy in prolonged starvation and can be reversed with nutritional therapy. In contrast, cachexia is a wasting syndrome caused by an underlying disease such as cancer that causes dramatic muscle atrophy and cannot be completely reversed with nutritional therapy. Sarcopenia is age-related muscle atrophy and can be slowed by exercise. Finally, diseases of the muscles such as muscular dystrophy or myopathies can cause atrophy, as well as damage to the nervous system such as in spinal cord injury or stroke. Thus, muscle atrophy is usually a finding (sign or symptom) in a disease rather than being a disease by itself. However, some syndromes of muscular atrophy are classified as disease spectrums or disease entities rather than as clinical syndromes alone, such as the various spinal muscular atrophies.
Muscle atrophy results from an imbalance between protein synthesis and protein degradation, although the mechanisms are incompletely understood and are variable depending on the cause. Muscle loss can be quantified with advanced imaging studies but this is not frequently pursued. Treatment depends on the underlying cause but will often include exercise and adequate nutrition. Anabolic agents may have some efficacy but are not often used due to side effects. There are multiple treatments and supplements under investigation but there are currently limited treatment options in clinical practice. Given the implications of muscle atrophy and limited treatment options, minimizing immobility is critical in injury or illness.