Muscle atrophy is a decrease in muscle mass that results in decreased strength and increased risk of injury.
It’s a serious condition that many stroke patients experience during rehabilitation.
But as with everything, there is hope for recovery.
In this article you’ll learn the top 3 causes of muscle atrophy after stroke and how to reverse the condition.
Let’s get started.
Top 3 Causes of Muscle Atrophy in Stroke Patients
There are many causes of muscle atrophy, but this article is going to specifically look at muscle atrophy after stroke.
Here are the top 3 causes of muscle atrophy after stroke:
1. Muscle Inactivity
When stroke impairs your ability to move your affected muscles, the lack of movement can result in muscle atrophy.
Your body likes to be very efficient in order to conserve energy. Muscle is much more “expensive” to your body because it requires the most calories/energy to maintain.
When you stop using your muscles frequently, your body begins to get rid of the unused muscle in order to save energy.
While muscle atrophy is a symptom of your body trying to take care of itself, it’s an unfortunate side effect when you don’t intend to stop using your muscles, like after stroke.
2. Learned Non-Use
When hemiparesis (weakness on the affected side) and hemiplegia (paralysis on the affected side) make everyday tasks take longer, it’s natural to start using your non-affected side to accomplish most tasks.
There are 2 problems with this: 1) the inactive muscles start to atrophy and 2) it can lead to learned non-use, a condition where your brain loses connection with your affected muscles.
This is where the phrase “use it or lose it” comes from. Unless you use it, you will continue to lose muscle mass and neural connections to the affected muscles.
3. Poor Nutrition
Another factor that contributes to muscle atrophy after stroke is poor nutrition.
When stroke affects the ability to swallow (a condition known as dysphagia) it can cause stroke patients to eat less.
This can lead to a deficiency in calories, protein, and other essential nutrients that muscles need to thrive. The lack of proper nutrition can lead to muscle atrophy.
Avoiding the Vicious Cycle
As you can see, there are several factors that lead to muscle atrophy after stroke, which creates a vicious cycle:
- Hemiparesis and hemiplegia after stroke leads to muscle inactivity in the affected muscles
- Muscle inactivity leads to muscle atrophy
- Muscle atrophy increases your risk of injury and makes rehabilitation more difficult
Luckily, there’s a way to pull yourself out of the vicious cycle.
Treat Muscle Atrophy with Movement
Your body is smart enough to get rid of muscle when you’re not using it in order to conserve energy.
This means that your body is smart enough to build muscle when you are using it!
Therefore, the best way to treat muscle atrophy is to get your affected muscles moving. You don’t need to be fancy – you just need to move!
Steps for Hemiplegia
If you struggle with hemiplegia – paralysis on one side of the body – this can be difficult. But don’t worry, there’s still a way to exercise!
In order to start exercising paralyzed muscles, you need to passively move them by using your non-affected muscles to assist you.
These are called passive exercises, and they are a great way to start rewiring the brain and introduce movement into the muscles. Then, once you start to regain small amounts of movement, you can move onto the next step.
Give it a try: Paralysis Recovery Exercises for Stroke Patients
Steps for Hemiparesis
If you have some movement in your affected muscles but they are weak (hemiparesis), then you can move straight into active exercises, where you perform the movements on your own.
Although you might not be able to perform them with great accuracy at first, therapeutic stroke rehabilitation exercise will help rewire the brain and improve your accuracy.
As you continue to exercise daily, you with strengthen your muscles to reverse the atrophy and you will rewire the brain to improve your control over those muscles.
Give it a try: Full Body Exercises for Stroke Patients
How to Rebuild Muscle and Rewire the Brain
The purpose of stroke rehabilitation exercise is to both rewire the brain and to recover from muscle atrophy.
Rewiring the Brain:
When you repeat stroke rehab exercises over and over, it sends signals to your brain and new neural pathways are formed. This is important for regaining control of your affected side.
As you progress in your recovery and begin to use your muscles in a serious way (like weight-bearing exercises), it stimulates muscle growth, which reverses the atrophy.
Rehab exercise is very important for stroke recovery.
Many stroke patients benefit from tools that motivate them to accomplish high repetition of rehab exercise, like our FitMi.
FitMi users have gotten back to the activities of daily living quickly because the exercise helps them rewire their brain and rebuild muscle faster than traditional therapy.
Reversing Muscle Atrophy After Stroke
In summary, muscle atrophy happens when muscles begin to decrease in size from inactivity and poor nutrition.
The vicious cycle begins as these muscles weaken and become further neglected. As a result, your brain stops communicating with them and it can eventually lead to learned non-use.
In order to reverse muscle atrophy, all you need to do is move – preferably in a systematic way with consistent stroke rehab exercise.