Disuse Atrophy Causes, Prevention, and Treatment

Elderly patients often suffer from disuse atrophy.
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Disuse atrophy is a type of muscle atrophy, or muscle wasting, which refer to a decrease in the size of muscles in the body. Disuse atrophy occurs when a muscle is no longer as active as usual. When muscles are no longer in use, they slowly become weaker. Eventually, they begin to shrink. In some cases, disuse atrophy can be reversed if the muscles become active again.

Disuse atrophy can be caused by immobility, such as an arm being in a cast for a long period of time. It can also occur to some degree if a person stops performing their usual activities, such as ​walking.

What Causes Disuse Atrophy?

Disuse atrophy often occurs from not using a muscle or a disconnection of the nerve signals to the muscle. The condition often occurs after a period of bed rest after a major surgical procedure, to people with limbs in casts or from becoming bedridden due to illness or age.

The older population is particularly at risk for developing disuse atrophy, as well as those who suffer from a joint disease that causes them to become immobile.


People who exercise regularly or are simply active on a daily basis allow their muscles to grow to meet their needs. However, lack of using a muscle often results in the body's breakdown -- it no longer wants to exert the energy to move and expand. Therefore, the muscle decreases in size as well as in strength.


Disuse atrophy can be a temporary condition if the unused muscles are exercised properly after a limb is taken out of a cast or a person has regained enough strength to exercise after being bedridden for a period of time.

Doctors recommend patients suffering from disuse atrophy complete various exercises that involve the muscle and increase being active on a daily basis. Physicians often start patients off with normal physical activity, such as simply getting up, walking, lifting and carrying. A strict daily exercise regime can "cure" or reverse disuse atrophy by giving the muscles the energy they need to regrow.

In severe cases of disuse atrophy, there is a permanent loss of skeletal muscle fibers. In these cases, doctors may have to replace muscle tissue and prescribe a full rehabilitation plan.

A Side Effect of a Neuropathic Pain Condition

Disuse atrophy can be a side effect of a neuropathic pain condition, which occurs when nerves in the central nervous system become damaged. Nerve, or neuropathic pain, which is one of the most intense types of chronic pain, can become debilitating and slowly diminish the quality of life.

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Article Sources

  • Churchill Livingstone, Dictionary of Sport and Exercise Science and Medicine, 2008 Elsevier Limited.
  • Muscular Reading 2, mhhe.com.