What causes muscle atrophy?

Muscle atrophy can result from lack of muscle movement and use, in which case it is called disuse atrophy. Causes include a sedentary lifestyle, being bedridden, injuries, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation). Another type of muscle atrophy is neurogenic atrophy, which is muscle atrophy due to a nerve problem, such as neuropathy and neuromuscular disease.

General causes of muscle atrophy

Muscle atrophy may be caused by situations or conditions including:

  • Being bedridden
  • Dermatomyositis (a condition characterized by muscle inflammation and skin rash)
  • Injury, such as a broken arm or leg that must be immobilized
  • Malnutrition (progressive weakening and inability to adequately use muscles)
  • Muscular dystrophy (inherited disorder that causes a progressive loss of muscle tissue and muscle weakness)
  • Osteoarthritis (common type of arthritis that causes pain and immobility)
  • Polymyositis (widespread inflammation and weakness of muscles)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation)

Neurogenic causes of muscle atrophy

Muscle atrophy can also have neurogenic causes including:

  • Alcohol myopathy
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease; a severe neuromuscular disease that causes muscle weakness and disability)
  • Diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage due to high blood sugar levels associated with diabetes)
  • Exposure to toxin or poisonous substances
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome (autoimmune nerve disorder)
  • Multiple sclerosis (disease that affects the brain and spinal cord causing weakness, coordination, balance difficulties, and other problems)
  • Neck or spinal cord injury
  • Spinal cord atrophy (genetic disease causing decreased muscle function from a neural defect)

Serious or life-threatening causes of muscle atrophy

In some cases, muscle atrophy may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Guillain-Barre syndrome (autoimmune nerve disorder)
  • Neck or spinal cord injury
  • Stroke

Questions for diagnosing the cause of muscle atrophy

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your muscle atrophy including:

  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • Have you been receiving medical treatment for any other health conditions?
  • What medications are you taking?
  • When did you first notice muscle atrophy?
  • Which of your muscles are affected?

What are the potential complications of muscle atrophy?

Because muscle atrophy can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Decreased athletic performance
  • Decreased mobility
  • Disability
  • Loss of strength
  • Paralysis


  1. Muscle atrophy. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003188.htm.
  2. Spinal muscular atrophy. Spinal Muscular Atrophy Foundation. http://www.smafoundation.org/faq-test-2/

What is muscle atrophy?

Muscle atrophy, or muscle wasting, results from loss of muscle tissue. Little or no physical exercise and a sedentary lifestyle are common causes of muscle atrophy, in this case called disuse atrophy. Other common causes of disuse atrophy include medical conditions that decrease mobility, such as rheumatoid arthritis (chronic autoimmune disease characterized by joint inflammation) or osteoarthr... Read more about muscle atrophyintroduction


What other symptoms might occur with muscle atrophy?

Muscle atrophy may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the muscles may also involve other body systems.

Neuromuscular symptoms that may occur along with muscle atrophy

Muscle atrophy may accompany other symptoms affecting the neuromuscular system including:

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Sep 6, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Bones, Joints and Muscles

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