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Weakness

Definition

Weakness is reduced strength in one or more muscles.

Alternative Names

Lack of strength; Muscle weakness

Causes

Weakness may be all over the body or in only one area. Weakness is more noticeable when it is in one area. Weakness in one area may occur:

You may feel weak but have no real loss of strength. This is called subjective weakness. It may be due to an infection such as the flu. Or, you may have a loss of strength that can be noted on a physical exam. This is called objective weakness.

Weakness may be caused by diseases or conditions affecting many different body systems, such as the following:

METABOLIC

BRAIN/NERVOUS SYSTEM (NEUROLOGIC)

  • Disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; ALS)
  • Weakness of the muscles of the face (Bell palsy)
  • Group of disorders involving brain and nervous system functions (cerebral palsy)
  • Nerve inflammation causing muscle weakness (Guillain-Barre syndrome)
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Pinched nerve (for example, caused by a slipped disk in the spine)
  • Stroke

MUSCLE DISEASES

POISONING

OTHER

Home Care

Follow the treatment your health care provider recommends to treat the cause of the weakness.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if you have:

  • Sudden weakness, especially if it is in one area and does not occur with other symptoms, such as fever
  • Sudden weakness after being ill with a virus
  • Weakness that does not go away and has no cause you can explain
  • Weakness in one area of the body

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

The provider will do a physical exam. Your provider will also ask you about your weakness, such as when it began, how long it has lasted, and whether you have it all the time or only at certain times. You may also be asked about medicines you take or if you have been ill recently.

The provider may pay close attention to your heart, lungs, and thyroid gland. The exam will focus on the nerves and muscles if the weakness is only in one area.

You may have blood or urine tests. Imaging tests such as x-ray or ultrasound may also be ordered.

References

Raftery AT, Lim E, Ostor AJK. Muscle weakness and wasting. In: Raftery AT, Lim E, Ostor AJK, eds. Churchill's Pocketbook of Differential Diagnosis. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2014:334-337.

Selcen D. Muscle diseases. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 421.


Review Date: 7/13/2016
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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