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Muscle atrophy is the wasting or loss of muscle tissue.

Alternative Names

Muscle wasting; Wasting; Atrophy of the muscles


There are two types of muscle atrophy.

Disuse atrophy occurs from a lack of physical exercise. In most people, muscle atrophy is caused by not using the muscles enough. People with sedentary jobs, medical conditions that limit their movement, or decreased activity levels can lose muscle tone and develop atrophy. This type of atrophy can be reversed with exercise and better nutrition.

Bedridden people can have significant muscle wasting. Astronauts who are away from the Earth's gravity can develop decreased muscle tone and lose calcium from their bones after just a few days of weightlessness.

The most severe type of muscle atrophy is neurogenic atrophy. It occurs when there is an injury to, or disease of, a nerve that connects to the muscle. This type of muscle atrophy tends to occur more suddenly than disuse atrophy.

Examples of diseases affecting the nerves that control muscles:

  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease)
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome
  • Polio (poliomyelitis)

Although people can adapt to some degree of muscle atrophy, even minor muscle atrophy usually causes some loss of movement or strength.

Common Causes

Some muscle atrophy occurs normally with aging. Other causes may include:

  • Alcohol associated myopathy
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease)
  • Burns
  • Dermatomyositis and polymyositis
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome
  • Injury
  • Long-term corticosteroid therapy
  • Long-term immobilization
  • Motor neuropathy (such as diabetic neuropathy)
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Polio
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Severe malnutrition
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Stroke

Review Date: 02/06/2010
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; Luc Jasmin, MD, PhD, Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, CA, and Department of Anatomy at UCSF, San Francisco, CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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