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What is Low Muscle Tone?

By M. Rosario
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Low muscle tone is the condition of having abnormally low strength or muscle mass. In medicine, low muscle tone is known as hypotonia. While not harmful in itself, it is often a symptom of an underlying disorder. This condition mostly affects children and infants. Hypotonia is usually alleviated with physical therapy or treatment of the underlying cause.

Hypotonia in small children often involves diminishing muscle strength. Although not a distinct medical disorder, it is usually a symptom of a disorder or disease that affects motor nerve control, muscle strength, or other neurological functions. It does not directly reflect on a child's mental ability. Some children with this condition, however, may take longer to develop language, reasoning, and social skills.

Diagnosing low muscle tone, even in the early formative years, is relatively easy. The most common signs being exceptionally soft muscles, unnaturally flexible limbs, and difficulty in chewing and swallowing. For infants, slow physical development in holding the head up, crawling, sucking, and sitting up is a common indicator of the disorder.

Discovering the cause of low muscle tone can be difficult because many disorders produce this symptom. In addition, there are similarities between the disorders that cause congenital hypotonia. These disorders include Down's syndrome, Marfan's syndrome, cerebellar ataxia, Prader-Willi syndrome, and Riley-Day syndrome to name a few. Specialists are often needed to accurately figure out which problem is causing the symptoms. In addition, the most common disorders are genetic in nature, which, by themselves, are untreatable.

An affected baby is sometimes referred to as a floppy infant. With substantial weakness and almost no muscle control, an infant's head and other limbs “flop” uncontrollably when he is picked up. While most children tend to flex their knees and elbows when resting, an infant with low muscle tone hangs his legs and hands by his sides like a rag doll. It is imperative to take extra care when lifting and carrying an infant with low muscle tone to avoid causing injury.

Unless the underlying cause is degenerative, low muscle tone tends to improve over time. Still, muscle strength will not normally be as strong as that of an average person. To alleviate this, physical therapy and treatment of the underlying cause are usually undertaken.

Physical therapy, on the other hand, can give a relatively immediate result, especially with early medical intervention. The muscles are stimulated to replicate exercise and to improve strength and mass. This treatment can be given even without proper diagnosis or treatment of the underlying disease. Speech therapy can also lessen some of the effects of the disorder such as difficulty in chewing, swallowing, and speaking.

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