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What is Muscle Wasting?

By Sarah Sullins
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Muscle wasting, also known as muscle atrophy, is when a muscle becomes thin and weak. When a person does not use his muscles, the muscle tissues waste away and must be built back up again if they are to be used. These thin muscles can become loose or detached from the motor nerve if the wasting is caused by trauma or disease. As a result, a person may experience loss of strength, decreased movement and, if the muscle has become fully detached, paralysis. This condition can occur for many reasons, including age, disease, malnutrition, illness, certain long-term therapies, and burns.

A person who becomes bedridden, does not exercise, or spends most of his time sitting will most likely experience muscle wasting. Unused muscles in bedridden people may exhibit extensive wasting. The muscles are not gone and can be restored to the way they used to be if the person begins to use them again. Those people who must remain in bed might benefit from physical therapy to help keep or improve their muscle tone.

Diseases also cause muscle wasting. Some examples of diseases known to cause muscle atrophy are polio, arthritis, diabetes, muscular dystrophy, Guillain-Barre syndrome, and Lou Gehrig's disease. Other types of disease that directly affect the muscles in a person's body can also result in muscle atrophy.

Trauma to a person's muscles can result in the wasting of the muscles. If the tiny fibers that make up a person's motor nerve are severed or become loose, it can greatly affect the tone of a person's muscle. A person with an injury often experiences a loss of movement. The injury may also result in loss of feeling if the nerves that transfer these sensations are damaged.

Treatments that may be used for muscle wasting will depend on the reason for the thin muscles. Exercise and physical therapy are most often useful for those who have lost muscle tone become of lack of exercise or movement. Diseases and injuries may require certain medications, hospitalization, therapy, breathing support, feeding support, surgery, or plasmapheresis, a process in which plasma is removed from the body, cleansed, and returned.

Muscle wasting can occur with any muscle in the body and is usually visible to the naked eye. When it is caused by age or lack of movement, many people become used to the lack of muscle tone and can live out their lives without any problems. If it is caused by disease or injury, medical attention and appropriate treatment are usually required.

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Discussion Comments

By anon1001817 — On Jul 01, 2019

Hi everyone. I was a baker for many year, had big strong arms and a lot of strength. I got psoriatic arthritis, in my knees and wrists, sore hands and a few swollen fingers from it. I took a night audit job, and get along OK with a bit of ibuprophen, which helps me walk better. I noticed when I bent down to get dressed, that my arm skin was just hanging there like an empty sack. I tried to flex my biceps, and there was hardly any firmness at all! Now I am trying to get back my tone with some resistance band workouts and light weights. I walk a lot with my dog so my legs are pretty strong. Hope everyone will be able to get back their tone and get strong!

By LiangjinCh — On Feb 13, 2014

Maybe you can try a face thin tool and it can make your face thinner.

By anon356448 — On Nov 25, 2013

I have had fibromyalgia for years. First, I had to leave my job, but then I was walking, so I started walking two hours a day. Then I started getting asthma due to the fibromyalgia and had to stop walking. Then I became very ill again due to this condition and was bedridden for four months.

I got better and went to kushi. I felt much better, so I went walking two times and each time, I walked four miles in one week. That means I was exercising after a long time, like years and when I came home after walking for the two weeks, I starting hurting so badly from my lower back to my feet for months. I am still not sure whether it was my muscles or tendons. Even lying on the bed was hell for me.

Now most of the pain is gone, but my hips are still sore and makes sleeping difficult. Also, when I want to walk again, the pain comes back so I am not able to exercise and all my muscle tone have disappeared and all is left is fat. I like to go walking but I feel too weak and the next day I become exhausted so I don't know how to get back on my feet. I am lying down on the sofa all day. It scares me to death not to be able to get back on my feet again.

I have been isolated and depressed because I don't go out either, so I don't know if I can ever get back to normal, since having fibromyalgia makes it hard to stay active. Does anyone have any comments?

By allenJo — On Mar 06, 2012

@everetra - Well, it doesn’t have to be disease really. The article mentions trauma. If you have tendinitis (like I do) that can exacerbate your problems. I don’t get a lot of exercise and so my muscles tend to be weak.

When I do exercise, I have increased muscle tremors as a result of the tendinitis. I mean the shaking is very visible. Can it go away? I think if I really work out maybe, but so long as I have the tendinitis there will always be a little tremor I think.

By everetra — On Mar 05, 2012

@Mammmood - I agree that muscle wasting is a bad thing. However, I believe the kind of wasting that happens as a result of disease is much more severe than what you get from poor diet or lack of exercise.

With diet and exercise, your muscle fibers are still healthy and intact, although they are diminished. With disease however your tissues may themselves be damaged and incapable of functioning properly.

Temporal muscle wasting will leave you frail and unable to move around like you used to. So I think that it’s important to put these things in perspective.

By Mammmood — On Mar 04, 2012

Years ago I went on this all vegetarian diet to try to lose weight. It seemed to work well at first; by all accounts, I was losing weight.

But on further inspection it turned out that I was really losing muscle. They say that’s what goes first, your muscles, not your fat. You also lose a lot of water too.

I never went back on that diet again. You need a little bit of protein each day to replenish your muscle tissue. When my muscles started wasting away, I experienced muscle symptoms.

I could feel the pain in parts of my chest as I lost significant tone. That was not a good feeling! I literally felt like I was beginning to atrophy right before my eyes. Like I said, I never went on that diet again; my friends recommended an all protein, low carbohydrate diet instead. I did that for some time and never lost muscle tone.

By orangey03 — On Mar 04, 2012

My mother spent a long time in the hospital battling an illness, and when she finally got released, her muscles had wasted away badly. Her doctor recommended a program with a local physical therapist.

When she went for her first session, the therapist told her that he was going to get her to do water exercises. This would take strain off of her muscles and allow her to move more freely. The water would also provide a little resistance to help build her muscles back up.

She loved doing the water exercises so much that my dad bought an above ground swimming pool. She works out in it every day, even though her muscle tone is fine now. She greatly prefers it to the tough workouts you can get in a gym with heavy equipment.

By StarJo — On Mar 03, 2012

@Perdido – I'm sure those elderly people would love to be able to regain their muscle tone. They would probably exercise if they were physically able.

A girl in my high school who was anorexic had muscle atrophy, but hers was brought on by her eating habits. I thought it was terrible for her to do this to herself, though I do understand that anorexia is a mental illness.

Her body had begun using up her muscle tissue for food, since she wasn't giving it any. I have seen several fashion models who I believe are also experiencing muscle wasting, since their limbs are so stick-like and there appears to be no muscle covering them.

By Perdido — On Mar 03, 2012

I have seen a few elderly people affected by muscle wasting. It was very obvious, and it looked scary to me.

One woman could barely use her legs. She scooted around with a walker when she had to get up and move, and her legs looked like sticks with skin.

Another elderly person had been bedridden for months, and his legs looked the same way. They reminded me of a skeleton with the skin still attached.

I hope that I never experience muscle wasting. I know it must be terrible for these people who are suffering from it.

By lighth0se33 — On Mar 02, 2012

My friend went through muscle wasting during her grieving process after her boyfriend died in a car accident. She could not find the strength or motivation to get out of bed, and she became extremely weak because of this lack of movement.

Her family eventually found a counselor who was willing to come to their house to help her. After a few sessions, he coaxed her into getting up. He started her out small, with just a few activities, because she was too weak to do much.

Before long, she was ready to see a physical therapist. He helped her regain her strength, but it was a long battle.

By andee — On Mar 02, 2012

In recent years my dad has had a lot of major health problems and many surgeries. For a period of about 8 months, he was bedridden most of the time.

You don't realize how quickly your muscles start to waste away if you don't use them every day. This was really hard for him because he had always been so strong and could do anything he wanted to do.

When you practically have to learn to walk again and are so weak that you can barely put any weight on your legs, you realize how important this is.

Now I know that if I can get out of bed every day without any pain, and can walk around in a normal way, that is a huge blessing.

My dad has gone through a lot of physical therapy and work, but is slowly gaining the strength back in his muscles.

By julies — On Mar 01, 2012

I have muscular dystrophy, so really face an uphill battle when it comes to building my muscles. Experiencing weak muscle symptoms was the first clue I had that anything was wrong before I was diagnosed.

Now I have to really be diligent about trying to maintain and strengthen my muscles. If I want my quality of life to be the best it can be, it is important I do everything I can to try and keep my muscles strong.

Physical therapy and exercise are now a part of what I do every day. I have found that swimming is one of the most beneficial and enjoyable ways for me to strengthen my muscles.

By bagley79 — On Mar 01, 2012

@myharley - At least you made the right choice to get back on an exercise routine. I have been involved with physical fitness for a long time. One thing I always tell everybody, is that it isn't too late to start.

It is amazing how the muscles in our body begin to respond to exercise and resistance. It only takes a little bit when you first get started, and then you can gradually work your way up to more challenging things.

If someone has muscle wasting atrophy because of a disease, that is a different story. If someone lets their muscles waste away because they are too lazy or busy to exercise, they are only hurting themselves.

Exercise has to be a choice every day. When your muscles are strong and toned, it really does make a difference in how you feel and how you present yourself.

By myharley — On Feb 29, 2012

Exercise and strength training used to be a daily part of my routine. When I went through a period of great stress and changes, I quit exercising.

I could really tell a difference in my muscle tone after I stopped exercising. This was a gradual process of muscular atrophy, and was not noticeable on a day to day basis.

I think it took about 6 months of not exercising before the muscle tone I had built up completely wasted away. Even though I knew how important it was, I had a hard time getting back into a regular exercise routine again.

I started out slowly and when I started feeling so much better, I finally got back into my old routine. It felt really good to begin building that muscle tone up again. It makes me feel stronger and more confident.

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