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A Definition of Muscle Atrophy

By Michelle Zehr ; Updated April 18, 2017

Muscle atrophy is the wasting away of your muscle mass. Atrophy can occur for a variety of reasons -- such as injury or muscular dystrophy. The ability to move your limbs and function properly may be compromised with muscle atrophy, although many individuals have learned to compensate for this lack of muscle. Your doctor may recommend an exercise program to help increase your muscle mass.

Disuse Atrophy

If you do not use your muscles, you will eventually experience muscle loss. Disuse atrophy occurs as the result of a lack of physical exercise. Individuals with sedentary jobs, medical conditions and injuries most commonly experience disuse atrophy. If you are bedridden for an extended period you also may experience disuse atrophy. Astronauts may experience this type of atrophy as the result of weightlessness. The lack of gravity can decrease calcium levels in bones as well as decrease muscle tone within a few days.

Neurogenic Atrophy

Neurogenic atrophy stems from an injury or disease of the nerves. The onset of neurogenic atrophy tends to be sudden. Individuals who have contracted polio, sclerosis or Guillain-Barre syndrome are likely to experience neurogenic atrophy. Neurogenic atrophy is generally not reversible.


Muscle atrophy can be the result of aging and a number of other ailments. Lou Gehrig's disease, burn trauma, orthopedic injury, long-term immobilization, long-term treatment with cortocosteroid therapy, diabetic neuropathy, osteoarthritis, spinal cord injuries, muscle dystrophy, starvation stroke and rheumatoid arthritis all can cause muscle atrophy.


If you experience sudden or long-term muscle atrophy, it is best to consult your physician. Disuse atrophy can be treated with vigorous exercise to help regain strength and muscle mass in the affected area of your body. For individuals with neurogenic atrophy, physical therapy may be recommended -- including pool therapy -- to help increase your muscle mass. When muscle atrophy is the result of a nerve disease, treatment may be long term. If you have trouble moving your joints, your doctor of physical therapist may suggest the use of a brace or splint to help enable your ability to exercise.

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