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Did you know that because there is no gravity in space, astronauts’ muscles start to break down quicker than if they were on Earth? This is a health condition called muscle wasting and astronauts aren’t the only ones who experience this.

What is muscle wasting?

Muscle wasting or muscle atrophy is the loss of muscle mass due to the shrinking or weakening of muscles. This occurs when we lack physical activity for long periods of time. Muscle wasting is characterized by shortening of the muscle fibers and loss of overall muscle mass.

Symptoms

Symptoms of muscle atrophy include:

  • Reduced muscle mass
  • Overall weakness or notable weakness in a limb
  • Having one arm or leg that is visibly smaller than the others
  • Long periods of inactivity
  • Difficulty with balancing

Causes

Various factors can cause muscle fibers to break down and shorten. For instance, potential causes include physiological, neurological and pathological reasons. Some of these include:

Inactivity

Less physical activity allows the body to break down muscle to conserve energy. For instance, when someone is recovering from an illness or surgery, they may experience muscle wasting as a result.

Malnutrition

Nutrition plays a large role in how strong our muscles are. Additionally, lack of nutrition can bring forth other diseases, including muscle wasting. Diets rich in protein, fruits and vegetables are less likely to experience muscle wasting.

Furthermore, malnutrition can also be a result of some diseases that inhibit the body to absorb nutrients. Diseases like irritable bowel syndrome, cancer and celiac disease all make it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients. As a result, muscle mass can be lost.

Aging

Aging is another cause of muscle atrophy. As we age, our muscles naturally start to weaken and break down. This is because we produce a lower number of muscle building proteins. Having an insufficient amount of muscle growing proteins results in a condition called sarcopenia. This makes it difficult to build muscle for people over 60.

According to a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) report, sarcopenia affects up to a third of people ages 60 and above.

Some Diseases

There are multiple diseases that can cause muscle wasting. Some diseases that affect the nerves controlling muscles include:

 

Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA)

A genetic condition that causes arm and leg muscles to waste away

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)

Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, affects nerve cells that control voluntary muscle movement

Multiple sclerosis (MS)

An autoimmune condition in which the body destroys the protective coverings of nerves

Guillain-Barré syndrome

An autoimmune condition that leads to nerve inflammation and muscle weakness

Polio

A viral disease affecting muscle tissue that can lead to paralysis

 

Other conditions that attribute to muscle wasting or inhibit muscle movement are:

  • Muscular dystrophy and other diseases of the muscle
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory autoimmune condition that affects the joints
  • Burns
  • Injury or long term illness
  • Lacking gravity, astronauts in space experience muscle atrophy after a few days!

Treatments

There’s a variant of ways to treat muscle wasting. For example, treatments can include physical therapy, ultrasound therapy or surgery. In some cases, reversing muscle wasting is as simple as exercising consistently or making a change in eating habits.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy can be a good option for people that may have difficulty moving by themselves. Experts like physical therapists may move your limbs for you or suggest specific exercises aimed at healing your muscles. Water exercises may be included to make movement less inhibited.

Ultrasound Therapy

Focused ultrasound therapy is another treatment option that uses noninvasive soundwaves to aid in the healing process.

Surgery

Surgery can sometimes be necessary when tendons, ligaments, muscles or skin is too tight. This is called contracture deformity. A torn tendon or malnutrition can cause this condition.

In conclusion, when muscles aren’t used, muscle wasting can occur. This could be from an underlying cause that makes movement difficult such as a disease, illness or aging.

Muscle wasting can sometimes be reversed through consistent exercise and improved diet. For more extensive cases, surgery or physical therapy may be the best treatment option.

Author Dr. Rand

Dr. McClain has dedicated over 35 years of his personal and professional life studying nutrition, exercise, herbs and supplements and is also a Master of Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

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