Weakness refers to loss of muscle strength. That is, people cannot move a muscle normally despite trying as hard as they can. However, the term is often misused. Many people with normal muscle strength say they feel weak when the problem is fatigue or when their movement is limited because of pain or joint stiffness. Muscle weakness can be a symptom of nervous system malfunction.
For a person to intentionally move a muscle (called a voluntary muscle contraction), the brain must generate a signal that travels a pathway from
Using the Brain to Move a Muscle
Also, the amount of muscle tissue must be normal, and the tissue must be able to contract in response to the signal from the nerves. Therefore, true weakness results only when one or more part of this pathway―brain, spinal cord, nerves, muscles, or the connections between them―is damaged or diseased.
Weakness may develop suddenly or gradually. Weakness may affect all of the muscles in the body (called generalized weakness) or only one part of the body. For example, depending on where the spinal cord is damaged, spinal cord disorders may cause weakness only of the legs.
Symptoms depend on which muscles are affected. For example, when weakness affects muscles of the chest, people may have difficulty breathing. When weakness affects muscles that control the eyes, people may have double vision.
Complete muscle weakness causes paralysis. People may have other symptoms depending on what is causing the weakness. Weakness is often accompanied by abnormalities in sensation, such as tingling, a pins-and-needles sensation, and numbness.
Because malfunction in the same part of the signal pathway causes similar symptoms regardless of cause, the many causes of muscle weakness are usually grouped by the location of the cause (see table Some Causes and Features of Muscle Weakness). That is, causes are grouped as those that affect the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerves, muscles, or connections between nerves and muscles. However, some disorders affect more than one location.
Causes differ depending on whether weakness is generalized or affects only specific muscles.
For generalized weakness, the most common causes are
A decrease in general physical fitness (called deconditioning), which may result from illness and/or a decrease in physical reserves (frailty), such as muscle mass, bone density, and the heart’s and lungs’ ability to function, especially in older people
Loss of muscle tissue (wasting, or atrophy) due to long periods of inactivity or bed rest, as occurs in an ICU
Damage to nerves due to a severe illness or injury, such as severe or extensive burns
Drugs used to paralyze muscles—for example, to keep people from moving during surgery or while on a ventilator
For weakness in specific muscles, the most common causes are
Many other conditions sometimes cause weakness (see table Some Causes and Features of Muscle Weakness). For example, electrolyte abnormalities (such as a low level of magnesium or calcium) can cause weakness that sometimes comes and goes, as well as muscle cramping and twitches.
In people with a seizure disorder, one side of the body may become weak after a seizure stops (called Todd paralysis). The weakness usually subsides over several hours.
A low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) can also cause weakness, which resolves when hypoglycemia is treated.
Many people report weakness when their problem is actually fatigue. Common causes of fatigue include a severe illness, cancer, a chronic infection (such as HIV infection, hepatitis, or mononucleosis), heart failure, anemia, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and mood disorders (such as depression).
First, doctors try to determine whether people are weak or simply tired. If people are weak, doctors then determine whether the weakness is severe enough or worsening quickly enough to be life threatening. Doctors also try to identify the cause.
People who have any warning sign should go to an emergency department immediately. Immediate medical attention is crucial because weakness accompanied by a warning sign can worsen quickly and cause permanent disability or be fatal.
If people have symptoms suggesting a stroke (see table Some Causes and Features of Muscle Weakness), they should seek medical attention immediately because early treatment can help limit loss of function and sensation.
People without warning signs should call their doctor. The doctor can decide how quickly they need to be seen based on their symptoms and other disorders they have.
If the weakness worsens gradually (over months to years), people should discuss the problem with their doctor at their next visit.
Doctors first ask questions about the person’s symptoms and medical history. Doctors then do a physical examination. What they find during the history and physical examination often suggests a cause and the tests that may need to be done (see table Some Causes and Features of Muscle Weakness).
Doctors ask people to describe in detail what they are experiencing as weakness. Doctors ask
When the weakness began
Whether it began suddenly or gradually
Whether it is constant or is worsening
Which muscles are affected
Whether and how the weakness affects the ability to do certain activities, such as breathing, brushing their teeth or hair, speaking, swallowing, standing up from a seated position, climbing stairs, and walking
Whether they have other symptoms that indicate malfunction of the nervous system, such as speech or vision problems, loss of sensation or memory, or seizures
Whether any activity or condition (such as heat or repetitive use of a muscle) makes the weakness worse
What seems to be sudden weakness is sometimes gradual weakness, but people do not notice it until they can no longer do something, such as walking or tying their shoes.
Based on the description of weakness, doctors can often identify the most likely causes, as for the following:
A muscle disorder: Weakness beginning in the hips and thighs or the shoulders (that is, people have difficulty standing up or lifting their arms overhead) and no effect on sensation
A peripheral nerve disorder: Weakness beginning in the hands and feet (that is, people have difficulty lifting a cup, writing, or stepping over a curb) and loss of sensation
Doctors also ask about other symptoms, which may suggest one or more possible causes. For example, if people with back pain and a history of cancer report weakness in a leg, the cause may be cancer that has spread and put pressure on the spinal cord.
People are asked about symptoms that suggest fatigue or another problem, rather than true muscle weakness. Fatigue tends to cause more general symptoms than true muscle weakness, and fatigue does not follow a particular pattern. That is, it is present all the time and affects the whole body. People with true muscle weakness often report difficulty doing specific tasks, and the weakness follows a pattern (for example, becomes worse after walking).
Doctors ask about recent or current disorders that commonly cause fatigue, such as any recent severe illness or a mood disorder (such as depression).
Doctors ask about past and current use of drugs, including alcohol and recreational drugs.
Whether family members have had similar symptoms can help doctors determine whether the cause is hereditary.
During the physical examination, doctors focus on the nervous system (neurologic examination) and muscles.
Doctors observe how the person walks. How people walk may suggest the disorder that is causing symptoms or its location. For example, if people drag a leg, do not swing one arm as much as the other when walking, or both, their symptoms may be caused by a stroke. Doctors also check for other signs that the nervous system is malfunctioning, such as loss of coordination or sensation.
Cranial nerves (which connect the brain with the eyes, ears, face, and various other parts of the body) are tested—for example, by checking eye movements, the ability to speak clearly, and the ability to rotate the head (see table Testing Cranial Nerves).
Muscles are checked for size and unusual unintended movements (such as involuntary twitches and shaking). Doctors note how smoothly muscles move and whether there is involuntary resistance to movement (detected when doctors try to move a muscle that they have asked the person to relax).
Reflexes are checked. Reflexes are automatic responses to a stimulus. For example, doctors test the knee jerk reflex by gently tapping the muscle tendon below the kneecap with a rubber hammer. Normally, the knee then jerks involuntarily. This evaluation helps doctors identify which part of the nervous system is probably affected, as for the following:
Muscle strength is tested by asking the person to push or pull against resistance or to do maneuvers that require strength, such as walking on the heels and tiptoes or standing up.
A general physical examination is done to look for other symptoms that may suggest a cause, such as shortness of breath (possibly caused by a heart or lung disorder).
Generally, if the history and physical examination do not detect specific abnormalities that suggest a brain, spinal cord, nerve, or muscle disorder, the cause is likely to be fatigue.
If people have severe or rapidly progressing generalized weakness or any problems breathing, doctors first do tests to evaluate the strength of the respiratory muscles (pulmonary function tests). Results of these tests help doctors estimate the risk of sudden, severe malfunction of the lungs (acute respiratory failure).
Other testing is done based on where doctors think the problem is:
A brain disorder: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or, if MRI is not possible, computed tomography (CT)
A spinal cord disorder: MRI or, when MRI is not possible, CT myelography and sometimes a spinal tap (lumbar puncture)
A peripheral nerve disorder (including polyneuropathies) or a neuromuscular junction disorder: Electromyography and usually nerve conduction studies
A muscle disorder (myopathy): Electromyography, usually nerve conduction studies, and possibly MRI, measurement of muscle enzymes, muscle biopsy, and/or genetic testing.
Occasionally, MRI is not available or cannot be done—for example, in people who have a pacemaker, another implanted metal device, or other metal (such as shrapnel) in their body. In such cases, another test is substituted.
For CT myelography, CT is done after a needle is inserted into the lower back to inject a radiopaque contrast agent (which can be seen on x-rays) into the fluid that surrounds the spinal cord.
For electromyography, a small needle is inserted into a muscle to record its electrical activity when the muscle is at rest and when it is contracting.
Nerve conduction studies use electrodes or small needles to stimulate a nerve. Then doctors measure how fast the nerve transmits signals.
If people have no symptoms besides weakness and no abnormalities are detected during the examination, test results are usually normal. However, doctors sometimes do certain blood tests, such as
Blood tests are sometimes done to evaluate kidney and liver function and to check for the hepatitis virus.
If the cause is identified, it is treated if possible. If weakness began suddenly and causes difficulty breathing, a ventilator may be used.
Physical and occupational therapy can help people adapt to permanent weakness and compensate for loss of function. Physical therapy can help people maintain and sometimes regain strength.
As people age, the amount of muscle tissue and muscle strength tend to decrease. These changes occur partly because older people may become less active but also because the production of the hormones that stimulate muscle development decreases. Thus, for older people, bed rest during an illness can have a devastating effect. Compared with younger people, older people start out with less muscle tissue and strength at the beginning of the illness and lose muscle tissue more quickly during the illness.
Drugs are another common cause of weakness in older people because older people take more drugs and are more susceptible to side effects of drugs (including muscle damage and problems with nerves).
When evaluating older people who report weakness, doctors also focus on conditions that do not cause weakness but interfere with balance, coordination, vision, or mobility or that make movement painful (such as arthritis). Older people may mistakenly describe the effects of such conditions as weakness.
Regardless of what is causing weakness, physical therapy can usually help older people function better.