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Atrophy, a reduction in size that impairs tissue function, can occur in the muscles and glands of the body. It may be caused by genetic, environmental, lifestyle, or disease factors. Treatment options depend on the cause; some cases may be treatable with exercise, for instance, while others may require medical support. In an evaluation for this condition, a medical professional can determine the extent and origins in order to make treatment recommendations.
Skeletal muscles are most subject to atrophy. Some people have congenital conditions like spinal muscular atrophy that cause their muscles to shrink over time. Others may have conditions that affect their nervous systems, indirectly causing muscle wasting because the nerves can’t fully stimulate the muscles. Lifestyle factors like disuse can also be contributing causes, a particular concern for bed bound patients and people in weightless environments.
Poor circulation, inadequate nutrition, and damage to the nervous system can also starve muscles of the nutrients and stimulation they need to function. Over time, this can cause muscles to shrink because they don’t see regular use. A patient with a spinal cord injury, for example, can develop muscular atrophy below the site of the injury because those muscles don’t receive any signals from the nerves.
Smooth muscle like that found around the airways and vagina can also be subject to shrinkage and weakening over time. Women tend to experience a thinning of the vaginal walls as they age and go into menopause. In the airways, loss of muscle tone and shrinkage can be a serious medical problem, because the patient may have difficulty breathing as a result.
Glands are also subject to atrophy. Some shrink naturally over the course of development, while others may do so in response to disease. Endocrine imbalances can disrupt the hormones in the patient’s body, causing inadequate signaling to the glands; in turn, they start to shrink. They may not produce as many hormones as they should, creating a cascading effect of problems for the patient.
Wasting of muscle and glandular tissue can be associated with diseases as well. Patients may develop problems because the disease directly attacks the tissue, or because it makes it hard to eat and remain active. Some treatments can play a role in the development of atrophy; patients may get very sick on medication, for instance, which can make it difficult for them to maintain a balanced diet and contributes to muscle wasting.
One of the interesting facts I once read about people who went up into space for long periods of time was that almost every muscle would atrophy, except their stomach muscles.
It turns out that in weightlessness, if you even want to bend down to tie your shoe, you have to use more muscle strength in your stomach than you would on Earth. That's because on Earth you'd have gravity helping you out every time you bend over, but there's no gravity in space.
Otherwise, they have to do all kinds of exercises to keep from having too much atrophy, and even with the exercises, often astronauts need to be carried from the landing site, because the gravity is just too much for them.
Well, a lot of medications that you hear about in science magazines never actually make it to the shelves because they work fine on mice, but not so well on humans. So I wouldn't hold my breath for this one.
In any case, I don't think there will ever be a substitute for real exercise.
One of the main reasons people start to lose muscle mass is that they simply stop exercising as much when they get older. They drive more places and don't get involved in social sports, or even just playing outside with their kids.
It's a real shame, because if anything you should want to have better muscle mass when you're getting older to protect from other injuries. Letting your muscles atrophy without a fight is a bad idea.
I've heard that they might soon have a medication available that will help to stop muscles from atrophying by mimicking the effect that exercise has on muscles, even if they aren't contracting.
It's been said that it will be able to help a lot of people who might otherwise suffer from muscular atrophy.
Of course, it's only in testing phases right now, so it could be decades before we actually see it hit the shelves, but it's still an awesome idea. It could be really good for people who are overweight as well.
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