Understanding Muscle Atrophy
1Know what muscle atrophy means. Muscle atrophy is the medical term that describes when a part of the body suffers muscle loss or when muscle tissue wastes away.
- It’s normal for muscle atrophy to occur as we age, but it can also be a sign of a more serious medical condition, illness, or injury.
- Muscle atrophy can negatively impact a person’s quality of life because they lose strength and mobility, which can make it difficult to perform basic tasks. People with atrophied muscles are also at an increased risk for falling or injuring themselves. Since the heart is also a muscle that can break down, individuals experiencing muscle atrophy face the risk of heart problems.
2Learn about disuse atrophy, the leading cause of muscle atrophy. Muscles can atrophy from disuse, or when they are not used regularly, which causes the muscle tissue to break down, shorten in length, and become damaged. This typically occurs as a result of an injury, sedentary lifestyle, or medical condition that prevents a person from exercising his muscles.
- Disuse muscle atrophy can be the result of severe malnourishment. For example, prisoners of war and people suffering from eating disorders such as anorexia may experience muscle loss and the wasting away of muscle tissue.
- People with jobs that require them to be seated for long amounts of time or people who are not physically active can also experience this type of muscle atrophy.
- Severe injuries such as those to the spinal cord or brain may leave someone bedridden and result in atrophied muscles. Even common injuries such as broken bones or sprains that restrict your ability to move around can also cause disuse muscle atrophy.
- Medical conditions that limit a person’s ability to exercise or be physically active include rheumatoid arthritis, which causes joint inflammation, and osteoarthritis, which weakens the bones. These conditions can make it uncomfortable, painful, or even impossible to exercise, leading to atrophied muscles.
- In many cases of disuse muscle atrophy, the loss of muscle tissue can be reversed by increasing physical exercise.
3Understand the causes of neurogenic atrophy. Neurogenic muscle atrophy is caused by a disease or injury to the nerves attached to the muscles. Although it is less common than disuse muscle atrophy, it is harder to treat because you can’t necessarily improve the condition with increased exercise. Some of the diseases that often lead to neurogenic atrophy include:
- Polio, a viral disease that can cause paralysis.
- Muscular dystrophy, a hereditary disease that weakens the muscles.
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, attacks the nerve cells that communicate with and control muscles.
- Guillain-Barre syndrome is an autoimmune disorder that causes your body’s immune system to attack your nerves, resulting in muscle paralysis and weakness.
- Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is another autoimmune disease that can immobilize the whole body.
4Recognize the symptoms of muscle atrophy. It’s important to recognize the symptoms of muscle atrophy early so you can begin treating your condition. Some of the main symptoms include:
- Muscle weakness and decrease in muscle size.
- Skin around the affected muscle may seem to sag away from the muscle.
- Difficulty lifting things, moving the atrophied area, or doing exercise that was once easy.
- Pain in the affected area.
- Back pain and difficulty walking.
- A feeling of stiffness or heaviness in the affected area.
- The symptoms of neurogenic muscle atrophy can be harder for someone without a medical background to recognize, but some of the more visible symptoms include a stooped posture, a rigid spine, and a limited ability to move the neck.
5Seek medical advice if you think you are experiencing muscle atrophy. If you suspect that you are experiencing muscle atrophy, it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor or a medical professional as soon as possible. They will be able to properly diagnose your condition and provide treatment for the underlying causes.
- If the reason for muscle deterioration is an illness, your doctor may be able to prescribe medications that will help you maintain your muscle mass or reverse some damage of muscle atrophy.
- Anti-inflammatory medicines such as corticosteroids are sometimes given to patients with muscle atrophy, which helps to reduce inflammation and compression of the affected muscle nerves. This can make exercise and daily activities more comfortable.
- To diagnose muscle atrophy, doctors often use blood tests, X rays, CT scans, EMG scans, MRI scans, and muscle or nerve biopsies. They may also measure muscle tone and reflexes.
- A doctor will also be able to talk with you about whether any kinds of exercise can stop the loss of muscle tissues or if you need to undergo surgeries and other kinds of treatments.
Work with experts. Depending on what is causing the muscle atrophy, your doctor might recommend you work with a physical therapist, nutritionist, or a personal trainer who can improve your condition with targeted exercise, diet, and lifestyle changes.
Using Exercise to Build Up Atrophied Muscles
1Remember to consult your doctor or health provider before starting on any muscle-building programs. Even if the doctor did not find that your muscle atrophy is caused by a specific disease, it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor or health provider before attempting to build up atrophied muscles. You don’t want to overdo anything or endanger your health, and your doctor may be able to refer you to a qualified trainer or physical therapist.
2Find a personal trainer or physical therapist. Though you can do some physical activities on your own to reverse muscle atrophy’s effects, it is always best to have a qualified instructor or trainer to ensure that you are on the right track.
- She will start out by assessing your capabilities and guide you through specific exercises to build muscle in the atrophied areas. She can also gauge your progress and adjust the exercise routine as needed.
Start easy, then work your way up to more intense exercise. Since many people with atrophied muscles are beginning exercise again after a long break from physical activity, it’s important to start slowly. Remember, your body is not as strong as it was prior to atrophy.
4Begin with water exercise or aquatic rehabilitation. Swimming and water exercises are often recommended for patients who are trying to recover from muscle atrophy because this form of exercise can dull muscle pain, quickly tone atrophied muscles, rebuild muscle memory, and relax sore muscles. While it’s best to work with an expert, here are a few basic steps to get you started:
5Walk around the pool. With water at hip- to waist-height, try walking around the pool for 10 minutes. This workout is low-risk and helps develop the muscles in the lower part of your body.
- As you progress, increase the time interval and the depth of the water.
- You can also use buoys, paddles, or water barbells for more resistance. These tools will help work your core and upper body.
6Do knee lifts in the pool. Try a knee lift by positioning your back against the pool wall, and placing both feet flat on the bottom of the pool. Then, lift a knee up as if you are marching in place. When your knee is at hip height, extend it outward.
- Keep doing this for 10 repetitions, before switching to the other leg.
- As you progress, try doing additional sets for each leg.
7Complete water push ups. Face the pool wall with your arms resting on the deck of the pool and shoulder-width apart. Use your hands to raise your body up out of the water so you are about halfway out of the pool. Hold the position for a few seconds and then slowly lower yourself back in the pool.
- For an easier version, place your hands on the pool deck so they are shoulder-width apart. As you bend your elbows, lean your chest toward the wall of the pool.
8Move on to body weight exercises. If you feel proficient doing exercises in the water, add some body-weight exercises while on dry land.
- A beginner can start with 8 to twelve repetitions of the exercise moves mentioned below. These exercises target the major muscle groups.
- Perform this routine three times per week to build up atrophied muscles.
9Learn how to do squats. To perform a squat, stand straight and put both hands forward. Slowly and carefully bend your knees, as if sitting in an imaginary chair. Hold this position for a few seconds before going back to the starting position.
- Keep your weight in your heels and do not allow your knees to go past your toes.
10Perform lunges. To perform lunges, stand up straight with your hands on your hips. Pull your abdominal muscles in.
- Take a large step forward with your right foot. Keep your back straight while moving forward. Your heel should be raised while the tip of the toe is pressing against the floor.
- Bend both knees at the same time until they both form a 90 degree angle. You can check your position at the mirror to know if you are doing it right.
- Put your heel down and push upwards to stand. Return to the starting position and do all of the above with the left leg.
- Remember that your body should not be slouching forward.
11Try some triceps dips. To do a triceps dip, prepare a strong bench or a secured chair. Sit on the bench or chair and place your hands shoulder-width apart along the edge.
- Slowly slide your butt off the seat with your legs extended in front of you. Straighten your arms to keep tension on the triceps.
- Bend your elbows carefully while keeping your back close to the bench. Upon completing this part, press down on the bench to straighten your arms.
12Do some basic ab crunches. For a basic ab crunch, lie on your back on a mat or a carpeted surface. Bend your knees and make sure that your feet are flat on the floor.
- You can cross your arms in front of your chest or place your hands behind your neck or head. Try to pull your shoulders towards the ceiling by making use of the force from your abdominal muscles.
- Hold the “crunched” position for a few seconds, then lie back down and repeat.
13Try resistance exercises. Make use of resistance tools such as resistance bands or weight machines to help you with your form. You should only move on to these exercises once you can successfully perform the body-weight exercises indicated above. It’s also a good idea to research specific resistance exercises that target the affected area.
- Bench presses can be done with resistance bands. Lay down on a bench and push forward while gripping the bands like you are lifting barbells.
- Start with lighter-weight bands. If you feel comfortable with the current weight, fold it lengthwise to increase the resistance. Once you feel comfortable, you can move on to heavier-weight bands.
14Incorporate some cardio into your workouts. In addition to the other exercises described in this article, cardio exercise is a good way to build up atrophied muscles. Try establishing a regular walking or cardio routine.
- Start with ten to fifteen minutes of continuous walking per day. Gradually increase your speed and try to take a 30-minute walk or jog daily.
15Don’t forget to stretch. After each workout, stretch your muscles to increase their range of motion. Do five to ten minutes of stretching after each workout. You can also perform a separate stretching session.
- Make sure to perform stretches that target all of the major muscles, and hold each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds.
- Begin with stretching your back and your upper body. Next move on to stretches for your neck, forearms, wrists and triceps. Do not forget your chest, buttocks and groin area before moving to your thighs. Lastly, perform stretches for instep and hamstrings.
16Learn some specific stretches. Here are some specific stretching exercises for different parts of the body:
- Neck stretching: Incline your head forward then stretch your neck to the left, right, back and forward. Do not roll your head from side to side as this practice is dangerous.
- Shoulder stretching: Place your left arm on your chest. Grab the forearm with the opposite arm. Pull it until you feel that your shoulder is being stretched. Push the arm you are stretching in the opposite direction to contract the muscles. Do the same steps for the right arm.
- Triceps stretching: Start with raising your right arm. Bend the right elbow and reach down behind your head and between the shoulder blades. Make use of the left arm to reach and grab the right elbow. Lastly, pull your elbow toward your head.
- Wrist stretching: Simply hold your arm out and slightly pull back your hand with the opposite hand. Do this repetitively.
- Hamstrings stretching: Start in a cross-legged sitting position. Put one leg out. Attempt to reach and hold the foot for a few seconds. Go back to the starting position and do the same thing with the other leg.
- Lower back stretch: Lie down on your back. Bring one leg up to chest level. Do the same with the other leg.
- Leg stretching: Lie down on your back and extend both legs in the air. Grab the back of your thighs and pull the legs toward your face.
Improving Atrophied Muscles with Diet and Lifestyle Changes
1Eat plenty of protein. A constant supply of protein is necessary for muscle growth. See the basic guidelines below for daily recommended protein intake based on your age and gender.
- Adult men should eat about 56 grams of protein per day.
- Adult women should eat about 46 grams per day.
- Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should eat at least 71 grams of protein per day.
- Teenaged boys should eat about 52 grams a day.
- Teenaged girls should eat about 46 grams per day.
- Foods rich in protein include turkey breast, fish, cheese, pork loin, tofu, lean beef, beans, eggs, yogurt, dairy products, and nuts.
- A nutritionist, personal trainer, or dietician might suggest something other than the recommended dose based on your condition, weight, and activity level.
2Increase your carbohydrate intake. If you don’t eat sufficient carbohydrates to fuel your body, it will start breaking down muscles instead. This can further aggravate the muscle atrophy in the affected area.
3Eat good fats such as Omega-3 fatty acids. These good fats stop the breakdown of muscle by interfering with the inflammatory process.
4Understand why stress is bad for your muscles. When the body experiences stress, it prepares to respond. This preparation is known as the fight-or-flight response. In this response, many hormone levels shoot up including the stress hormone known as cortisol, which can break down muscle tissue during periods of prolonged stress.
- Since stress cannot be completely eliminated in our lives, take steps to minimize. Identifying the source of your stress can help you prevent it from occurring. You can also try stress-control techniques such as meditation or yoga. For specific suggestions, talk with a therapist, counselor, or mental-health professional about the stressors in your life.
I broke my lower leg over 20 years ago and that calf is smaller. Is there anything to be done or is it too late?
It’s never too late to build muscle. Start with body-weight, light exercises, be careful how much weight you put on that calf at first. As long as you are persistent with working the muscles, while slowly moving up into heavier exercises carefully, you will see results.
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- If you believe you are experiencing muscle atrophy, it’s important to consult a medical professional to properly diagnose your condition and identify the underlying cause. They will also be able to recommend treatment options and refer you a physical therapist or nutritionist who can guide you through specific exercises, diet, and lifestyle changes to suit your needs.
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