Resource type: Article

Muscle wasting

Why do you get muscle wasting?

In the early stages of your illness, it is most likely that you will have experienced a period of unconsciousness, and received support from a breathing machine, or ventilator, for your breathing.  During this time you will have been unable to use the muscles in your arms and legs, and move your joints yourself. If the muscle is not used then it will start to reduce in size or waste away.

We know from research studies where pictures have been taken of the muscles in patients during this time, that the muscles reduce in size, or waste, when they are not being used.  This can happen quite early in the ICU admission, and in some cases quite quickly.

What is the effect of this muscle wasting?

Overall this means that when you wake up, and start to take part in physical rehabilitation or exercise therapy, your muscles may feel much weaker than they were before your illness.  This can make it feel much harder to perform various activities, even relatively simple ones, for example sitting up on your own, or stepping, and walking.  Because the muscles are unable to work as effectively following your illness, you may feel that trying to carry out certain activities makes you more tired, and possibly breathless because of the effort that is required.  You may even find it hard to simply move your arms and legs on their own.  For this reason, your joints may continue to feel stiff because it is harder for you to move them as much or as freely as before your illness.  This can continue throughout your recovery period, even after leaving hospital.

What can I do to help?

Carrying out certain types of exercises can be helpful for managing these symptoms.  Initially, you may find you get easily worn out following your exercise sessions, but gradually you will find that your muscles get stronger and physical activities slowly get easier to perform. 

Your physiotherapist can give you advice and guidance on which exercises may be helpful for you, how to perform these exercises and how many and how often.