What causes muscle wasting and how can it be treated?

Symptom Database

Muscle wasting, also known as muscle atrophy, is a condition characterized by the loss of muscle mass and strength. It can occur due to various factors, including aging, lack of physical activity, certain medical conditions, and injuries. Muscle wasting can have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life, affecting their ability to perform daily activities and increasing the risk of falls and injuries. In this article, we will explore the causes of muscle wasting and discuss potential treatment options.

Causes of Muscle Wasting

There are several factors that can contribute to muscle wasting:

Lack of Physical Activity

One of the primary causes of muscle wasting is a sedentary lifestyle or lack of physical activity. When muscles are not regularly used or stimulated, they begin to weaken and deteriorate. This is particularly common in individuals who lead a predominantly desk-bound or inactive lifestyle.


As we age, our bodies naturally undergo changes that can lead to muscle wasting. This process, known as sarcopenia, is characterized by the gradual loss of muscle mass and strength. Sarcopenia can be accelerated by factors such as hormonal changes, decreased protein synthesis, and reduced physical activity.

Medical Conditions

Various medical conditions can contribute to muscle wasting. These include:

  • Muscular dystrophy: A group of genetic disorders that cause progressive muscle degeneration and weakness.
  • Cancer cachexia: A condition characterized by muscle wasting and weight loss commonly seen in advanced stages of cancer.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): A lung disease that can lead to muscle wasting due to decreased oxygen supply.
  • Heart failure: The heart’s inability to pump blood effectively can result in muscle wasting.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: Chronic inflammation associated with this condition can lead to muscle loss.


Severe injuries, such as fractures or immobilization, can cause muscle wasting. When a limb is immobilized in a cast or brace for an extended period, the muscles surrounding the affected area can weaken and atrophy.

Treatment of Muscle Wasting

The treatment of muscle wasting depends on the underlying cause and may involve a combination of approaches:

Physical Exercise

Regular physical exercise is crucial for preventing and treating muscle wasting. Engaging in resistance training, such as weightlifting or using resistance bands, can help stimulate muscle growth and improve strength. It is important to consult with a healthcare professional or a certified trainer to develop an appropriate exercise program.

Dietary Changes

A well-balanced diet rich in protein is essential for maintaining muscle mass. Protein provides the building blocks necessary for muscle repair and growth. Including lean meats, fish, dairy products, legumes, and nuts in your diet can help prevent muscle wasting. In some cases, dietary supplements may be recommended, particularly for individuals who have difficulty meeting their protein requirements through food alone.


In certain cases, medications may be prescribed to help manage muscle wasting. For example, anabolic steroids can be used to promote muscle growth and counteract muscle loss. However, these medications should only be used under the supervision of a healthcare professional due to potential side effects.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy can be beneficial for individuals with muscle wasting, especially those recovering from injuries or surgeries. A physical therapist can design a personalized exercise program to improve muscle strength, flexibility, and overall function.

Treating Underlying Medical Conditions

If muscle wasting is caused by an underlying medical condition, treating the condition itself may help alleviate the symptoms. This may involve medications, surgery, or other specific treatments depending on the nature of the condition.

Prevention of Muscle Wasting

While some causes of muscle wasting may be unavoidable, there are steps that can be taken to prevent or minimize its occurrence:

  • Engage in regular physical activity, including both cardiovascular exercises and strength training.
  • Follow a balanced diet that includes an adequate amount of protein.
  • Avoid prolonged periods of immobilization, especially after injuries or surgeries.
  • Manage underlying medical conditions effectively and seek appropriate medical care.
  • Consult with a healthcare professional or a certified trainer to develop an exercise program tailored to your needs and abilities.

In conclusion, muscle wasting can have a significant impact on an individual’s physical function and overall well-being. Understanding the causes of muscle wasting and implementing appropriate treatment and prevention strategies can help maintain muscle mass, strength, and quality of life. By staying active, eating a balanced diet, and seeking medical guidance when necessary, individuals can take proactive steps to combat muscle wasting and its associated complications.

Haroon Rashid, MD
Rate author
Urgent Care Center of Arlington, VA
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