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Muscle atrophy is essentially a decrease in muscle mass and strength. Weak and atrophied muscle can cause significant pain and reduce one’s ability to move freely, and even to move at all. Muscle can atrophy from disuse, as is the case for those with seated jobs, medical conditions and injuries that limit movement or those with low activity levels.

The lack of movement associated with aging is also a form of disuse atrophy. Muscle can also atrophy from neurological conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), Guillain-Barre syndrome, muscular dystrophy and neuropathy. Muscle tissue can show signs of atrophy from disuse in as little as three days and become significant in less than two weeks.

We tend to think of muscle atrophy as something that happens to old people or those who are suffering from severe medical conditions. The word “atrophy” brings up images of an older person who is skeleton-thin, with sunken cheeks and hunched shoulders. While this is sometimes the case, it is important to remember that muscle, like a business, is either growing or deteriorating (atrophy).

We see this in middle-aged people, as those over age 30 tend to lose about 3% to 5% of muscle mass per decade. This loss of muscle does not correspond with weight loss and, in fact, it can result in weight gain as muscle burns more calories even at rest. Weight gain can often result in loss of mobility and even more atrophy. The muscle lost is replaced with fat as the body requires less and less calories to maintain its lower muscle mass.

Muscle Fiber

In muscle there are two main types of muscle fiber: fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibers. Slow-twitch (type-I) fibers are what gives us endurance. The fast-twitch fibers are made up of moderate-twitch (type-IIa) fibers which react quicker and wear out faster than slow-twitch and fast-twitch (type-IIb or type-IIx) fibers which are the fastest to react and most powerful. The fast-twitch is what is engaged when we are near our maximum effort. Each type has a distinct physiological characteristic and metabolism, resulting in different sensitivity to atrophy. Fast-twitch glycolytic fibers are more vulnerable than slow-twitch oxidative fibers when exposed to the conditions that encourage atrophy. This means that when atrophy is occurring, we lose strength and power before we lose endurance.

Common Treatment

The most common treatment for weak or atrophied muscle due to disuse is exercise, but in cases where the person is unable to move, electrical stimulation sometimes aids in maintaining muscle tone. Injections of anabolic steroids also provide some resistance to the continued atrophy of the muscle tissue.

Benefits of Massage Therapy

Massage therapy on weak and atrophied muscle can have some very therapeutic effects, including an increase in blood supply and nutrition to the muscle tissue, increased circulation and a dilation of blood vessels, decreased congestion and a return of blood and lymph for re-oxygenation and filtration. Massage can also prevent the adhesions of muscle fibers and increase local muscle tissue metabolism. The increase of blood flow means an increase of red blood cells and nutrients to the area, optimizing muscle growth and delaying further atrophy.

In some cases, muscle tension is involved in the compression of nerves, causing neurogenic muscle atrophy. An example of this is carpal tunnel syndrome. Nerve function in a peripheral nerve is interrupted and, while massage cannot directly strengthen atrophied muscle, it can release muscle that is impinging on the nerves and increase circulation in the affected tissue, bringing in fresh blood supply, oxygenation and nutrition.

Massage can also reduce inflammation that can result in impingement on peripheral nerves through increased circulation and lymphatic return. In addition, studies have shown that when muscle is massaged, it senses that it is being stretched and there is a reduction in the inflammatory response as a result.