Atrophy: Definition, Types & Symptoms

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  • 0:00 What Is Atrophy?
  • 0:32 Types of Atrophy &…
  • 1:12 Skeletal Muscle Atrophy
  • 2:31 Spinal Muscle Atrophy
  • 3:43 Multiple System Atrophy
  • 4:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Atrophy is the wasting away or reduction in size of some part of the body. This condition reduces function of the area. Complete this lesson to learn about the different types of atrophy, their corresponding symptoms, and treatment options.

What Is Atrophy?

Atrophy is the term used to describe the wasting away or reduction in size of a part of the body, ultimately decreasing the function of the affected area. Atrophy can be caused by genetic, environmental, lifestyle, or disease-related factors. General symptoms of atrophy include one limb appearing smaller - but not shorter - than the other or a noticeable weakness in one part of the body. There are a number of conditions, diseases, or injuries that can cause atrophy, some of which we will outline in this lesson.

Types of Atrophy & Their Symptoms

Atrophy is a catch-all term used to describe a number of conditions. Two rare forms of atrophy include glandular and vaginal atrophy.

  • Glandular atrophy occurs when the glands of the body atrophy due to the extended use of steroids or other drugs, lack of proper nutrition, disease, or hormonal imbalances.
  • Vaginal atrophy occurs in post-menopausal women when their vaginal walls thin. It's believed to occur because reproduction is no longer biologically necessary.

However, there are three more common types of atrophy: skeletal muscle, spinal muscle, and multiple system. Let's discuss them each in turn.

Skeletal Muscle Atrophy

First, there is skeletal muscular atrophy. This type results in the wasting of muscle or a loss of muscle tissue and can be categorized into two types:

  1. Disuse atrophy: This type is caused by a lack of physical activity and can usually be reversed with exercise and proper nutrition. In other words, use it or lose it.
  2. Neurogenic atrophy: This type is caused by an injury or disease that affects the nerves connected to a muscle. It usually appears more suddenly and is more serious than disuse atrophy. It can be caused by Lou Gehrig's disease, Guillain-Barre syndrome, neuropathy, polio, immobilization, spinal cord injuries, and arthritis, among other things.

Both types of skeletal muscular atrophy cause muscle weakness and a decrease in strength as well as reduced mobility or movement. Some types may occur naturally as a part of aging.

Treating skeletal muscular atrophy can be done with:

  • Exercise to help rebuild the muscle
  • Physical therapy, especially in patients with limited mobility
  • Ultrasound therapy, which uses sound waves to treat the affected area
  • Surgery to correct contracture deformity, a condition in which the muscles, skin, or connective tissues are too tight, preventing normal movement of the muscle

Spinal Muscle Atrophy

Another type of atrophy is spinal muscular atrophy. This affects the muscles in the center of the body first and can hinder moving, walking, and breathing; however, it does not affect cognitive functioning. Spinal muscle atrophy can be broken down into different types:

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