Muscle Atrophy | Why Do Muscles Waste Away?

Published on: 13/04/2021

Do we really lose muscle mass when we don’t exercise? How do we ensure that our muscles don’t waste away?

Use it or lose it. We may have heard of this phrase before, as a warning that we are about to lose something if we don’t utilize it. Most often, this may be an ability, a skill, or even an opportunity, but it can also apply to our body’s muscle mass. 

When muscles waste away due to physical inactivity, they can lose their strength and increase our movement disability. In some cases, deformity occurs, wherein an arm or a leg is noticeably smaller than the other. Also known as muscle atrophy, this happens because there is a loss of muscle tissue in the body.

What Causes Muscle Atrophy?

Muscle atrophy is primarily attributed to the lack of physical activity for a long period of time. If you don’t have any other medical conditions, this can be addressed by an exercise regimen and improved nutrition.

Nonetheless, there are also some other situations and medical conditions that can cause muscle atrophy. For example, bedridden patients are at risk because they are not able to move certain body parts. Research suggests that, for healthy older adults, muscles begin to waste within 10 days on bed rest. Likewise, astronauts in space may also experience muscle atrophy after a period of weightlessness. Other factors include: 

  • Age - As we get older, our body produces fewer proteins that promote muscle growth. When there are fewer available proteins, the muscles begin to shrink. 
  • Poor Nutrition - According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, diets low in lean protein, fruits, and vegetables can increase the risk of muscle atrophy. There are also some medical conditions that compromise the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Among these are irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, and cancer.
  • Genetics - Spinal muscular atrophy, in particular, is a neurological condition wherein a person cannot control the movement of their muscles due to loss of nerve cells. It’s a genetic disorder and the symptoms tend to worsen over time.
  • Medical Conditions - Diseases such as polio, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) are among those that can contribute to muscle atrophy.
  • Neurological Problems - When the nerves that control our muscles are damaged, it can result in a condition called neurogenic muscle atrophy. Because the muscles are no longer receiving signals from the nerve, the muscles stop contracting. 

Prevention & Treatment

In a Harvard Health article, Dr. Thomas W. Storer of the Brigham and Women's Hospital said the best way to build muscle mass is through progressive resistance training (PRT). This kind of workout, which gradually ramps up your exercise volume also helps you prevent plateaus as you build your strength and endurance. 

When it comes to treatment, it’s essential that the underlying medical conditions are also addressed. If muscle atrophy is caused by malnutrition, your doctor may suggest supplements and changes in your diet.

Physical therapists can also give you information on the proper ways to exercise and will be able to assist you with the movement of your limbs if you have difficulty doing so. In some cases, the treatment may involve ultrasound therapy or even surgery. 

Because muscle atrophy reduces our ability to perform our everyday activities, it can impact the quality of our life. With movement and proper nutrition having key roles in the prevention of muscle wasting, it’s then important that we become more conscious of our everyday routine and dietary choices.