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What Is Hand Atrophy?

Physical therapy and specially designed braces can help some children with hand atrophy regain movement.
Arthritis can cause hand atrophy.
Treatment of hand atrophy involves addressing the root cause, as well as the resulting weakness.
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  • Written By: Sandra Koehler
  • Edited By: M. C. Hughes
  • Last Modified Date: 21 October 2014
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Hand atrophy is a condition that causes muscles of the hand deteriorate and wither away. Also called muscle wasting, hand atrophy leads the muscles to begin to lose their bulk and strength. This in turn may cause a general decrease in the ability of the hand to move.

When the hand is immobile for an extended period of time, the muscles begin to lose power and size. These symptoms are indicative of hand atrophy. The condition is common when a fracture of the hand or wrist requires casting. Joint problems, such as arthritis, in which normal movements become painful can also bring about hand atrophy.

In addition to generalized weakness with visible shrinking of the muscles, hand atrophy can produce a distorted appearance of the hand and fingers. The condition called "claw hand" is a product of longstanding atrophy. Characterized by a compression of the hand with an exaggerated extension of the knuckles and bending of the fingers, claw hand can severely limit the overall use of the hand. This altered positioning of the hand is commonly seen with conditions that cause progressive muscular atrophy.

A wasting away of muscles can also happen if there is a problem in the nerves. Nerves transmit signals which trigger muscles to contract or tighten. Nerve impairment can be the result of an injury or disease process. Diabetes, for example, can bring about nerve damage. This condition, which causes the nerves to become injured by exposure to excessively high blood sugar, is called diabetes neuropathy.

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Health conditions such as Gullain-Barre and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS can trigger the deterioration of muscles all over the body, including the hand. Thought to be caused by a virus, Gullain-Barre syndrome strikes the nerves bringing about pain symptoms, and in extreme cases, paralysis. This loss of movement increases the risk of a reduction in muscle tone or atrophy, especially in the hand.

ALS, commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig disease, is a progressive condition producing widespread muscle deterioration which eventually spreads to include hand atrophy. This disease kills the nerves which control the contraction or movement of muscles throughout the body. When enough nerve cells are destroyed the entire body loses the ability to function.

Treatment of hand atrophy involves addressing its root cause and the resulting weakness or deformity. Performing a general range of motion and exercise program can increase overall hand movement and strength. Splints, commonly used when at rest, can aid in limiting the severity of hand distortion by slowly stretching the hand back to a more normal position.

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KoiwiGal
Post 3

The mother of one of my friends had those claw hands because she had diabetes. It started as numbness in the hand and then I guess the nerves were damaged and she wasn't able to use it very well.

Some of the kids at school made fun of her for that, and it really made me angry, because I know it hurt her feelings. Kids can be real jerks.

Fa5t3r
Post 2

@irontoenail - Well, with some conditions the best treatment is to keep still as much as possible, even if it leads to atrophy. It's just that we try to make sure that people don't atrophy if we can help it.

But, I think with broken bones they just accept that it happens and use rehabilitation to build the muscle back up once the bone has healed. There's just no other way to make sure the bone isn't jarred, except to keep the muscle still.

One day, maybe, they will be able to heal bones faster, but that's the only real solution I can see.

irontoenail
Post 1

I suspect that some of the treatments in the old days for various conditions basically led to people experiencing this kind of muscle atrophy in the hand and in other areas.

Several of my favorite classic books have some element where a sickly kid isn't able to do very much, like walk or throw a ball and it's only when they are taken out into the fresh air and encouraged to be active that they actually get better.

I know back in the day they thought lying still and keeping activity to a minimum was the best cure for everything, and I wonder how many people experienced muscle atrophy because they were being treated the wrong way.

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