Muscle Atrophy – What a Waste!
Skeletal muscle atrophy refers to muscle mass loss. Wasted muscles appear shrunken, and smaller in size compared to the non affected side. There will also be a corresponding loss in muscle tone and strength. Muscles waste from disuse, swelling, nerve damage or a disease process. If the cause is not addressed, it can lead to severe decline in the quality of life. Where there is no permanent damage, exercise or physical activity is the best way to prevent muscles from wasting away.
A common cause of muscle atrophy is disuse. When muscles are not stressed sufficiently due to a lack of physical activities or because of pain. This is commonly seen in sedentary people and the elderly who have a reduced activity level. Interestingly, it has been observed by some studies that muscles start wasting away within 4 hours of the start of bed rest.
Swelling to the joints or effusion can also cause muscles to atrophy and lose its strength. This is particularly evident in a knee injury. For example an ACL tear where swelling inhibits the activation of the thigh muscle. Gradually causing muscles to lose its function. Hence, swelling management is one of the most important aspects of an acute sports injury.
Neurogenic muscle atrophy occurs when there is damage to the nerve, affecting its normal function. For example, a nerve impinged by a slipped discor disc prostrusion will be inhibited from activating its connecting muscles. Muscles that are not activated for long periods of time waste. This can become a severe problem, as the patient may eventually lose control over his or her extremities, or experience pain and discomfort as a result of shrunken, weakened muscles.
Cachexia, or “body wasting syndrome”, and Muscular Dystrophy are examples of diseases that cause progressive muscle wasting. Cachexia is often seen in patients with AIDS, cancers, and other serious chronic diseases. This group of patients may find it difficult to rebuild muscle tissue. A local example is popular Singaporean television actor, Chew Chor Meng, who was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy.
Exercise is the most important element in promoting the rebuilding of muscle tissue. Exercise may also be supplemented with a special diet to help build muscles. If exercise is not practical especially in bed-bound patients, electrical nerve stimulation of the atrophied region can help to reduce the severity of muscle atrophy by artificially activating the muscle for the patient.
Muscle atrophy can be serious and debilitating, leading to a decline in your quality of life. If muscle atrophy appears suddenly and without any apparent cause, it is a good idea to consult a doctor. Proper investigation and treatment will determine the cause and prevent progressive atrophy and rebuild the wasted muscles.