What Is Cachexia? - Definition, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Danielle Haak

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

Another name for cachexia is wasting syndrome. You have to admit, anything called 'wasting syndrome' is bound to be at least a little peculiar. Learn what this condition is, what its symptoms are, and how it can be treated.

What is Cachexia?

Cachexia is a condition where a person loses substantial body weight and muscle mass in a short period of time due to a chronic illness. These illnesses could include type 1 diabetes, types of cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV, and 'failure to thrive' conditions.

In these scenarios, weight loss is completely unintentional and is a side effect of a patient's illness. Once muscle mass decreases too much, the patient will no longer be able to move and will become completely immobile. Cachexia is common in cancer patients with poor prognoses who have stopped responding to treatment and is responsible for about 20% of cancer deaths.

Cachexia is difficult to treat because the weight loss is not just due to a calorie deficit. So simply telling a patient to 'eat more' on their own isn't always the best solution. The underlying causes of the condition are poorly understood, and it can be present before the patient even begins losing weight.

Symptoms of Cachexia

What are the symptoms of this mysterious condition? The most dramatic symptom is involuntary weight loss. In fact, weight loss may occur even when the patient is consuming a normal amount of calories each day. Another symptom is loss of skeletal muscle (muscle that facilitates movement). Both fat and muscle mass are lost with cachexia.

A patient may experience a lack of appetite or lose the desire to eat (known as anorexia). Interestingly, it isn't necessary just a lack of appetite in the case of 'nothing sounds good.' The patient may actually lose the desire to eat anything, generally speaking. The physical act of eating no longer sounds appealing, even if they understand they need to eat to survive. Unfortunately, this often leads to a lower quality of life, which is unavoidable as the condition progresses.

An example of the physical effects of cachexia

Though the causes aren't completely understood, there are two hypothesized causes, or at least factors that may amplify cachexia: tumor factors and host response. Tumor factors are chemicals released by a tumor, and host response is the body's reaction to the tumor. It, in turn, releases its own chemicals.

Treatment Options

Unfortunately, there is no cure for cachexia. Though cachexia is not caused by a calorie deficit, it is still critical to make sure patients are eating a well-balanced diet. Once a patient loses the ability to manually eat, a feeding tube can be inserted to automate nutrition.

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