Muscle atrophy is defined as a decrease in the mass of the muscle; it can be a partial or complete wasting away of muscle, and is most commonly experienced when persons suffer temporary disabling circumstances such as being restricted in movement and/or confined to bed as when hospitalized. When a muscle atrophies, this leads to muscle weakness, since the ability to exert force is related to mass. Modern medicine’s understanding of the quick onset of muscle atrophy is a major factor behind the practice of getting hospitalized patients out of bed and moving about as active as possible as soon as is feasible, despite sutures, wounds, broken bones and pain.
Muscle atrophy results from a co-morbidity of several common diseases, including cancer, AIDS, congestive heart failure, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), renal failure, and severe burns; patients who have “cachexia” in these disease settings have a poor prognosis. Moreover, starvation eventually leads to muscle atrophy.
Disuse of the muscles, such as when muscle tissue is immobilized for even a few days of unuse – when the patient has a primary injury such as an immobilized broken bone (set in a cast or immobilized in traction), for example – will also lead rapidly to disuse atrophy. Minimizing such occurrences as soon as possible is a primary mission of occupational and physical therapists employed within hospitals working in co-ordination with orthopedic surgeons.
Neurogenic atrophy, which has a similar effect, is muscle atrophy resulting from damage to the nerve which stimulates the muscle, causing a shriveling around otherwise healthy limbs. Also, time in a circa zero g environment without exercise will lead to atrophy. This is partially due to the smaller amount of exertion needed to move about, and the fact that muscles are not used to maintain posture. In a similar effect, patients with a broken leg joint undergoing as little as three weeks of traction can lose enough back and buttocks muscle mass and strength as to have difficulty sitting without assistance, and experience pain, stress and burning even after a very short ten-minute exposure, when such positioning is contrived during recovery.