What is Cachexia?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 15 February 2020
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Cachexia or wasting syndrome is a condition which appears in patients with certain chronic and terminal illnesses. Patients with cachexia experience severe weight loss, along with wasting of the muscles of the body, and they develop a characteristically thin, sunken experience with a corresponding loss of energy. This condition can weaken the body, making it harder for the patient to fight the disease, and it also leads to profound impairments in quality of life, as eventually the patient will be bedridden due to fatigue, anemia, and muscle damage.

While this disorder is often attributed to insufficient food intake, the condition is a bit more complicated than this. Many cachexic patients do experience anorexia, also known as loss of appetite, but even if they eat enough, they will still experience wasting syndrome. Cachexia is characterized by metabolic abnormalities which cause the body to start breaking down its own tissues, and malabsorption, in which the digestive tract is not able to absorb nutrition from the foods the patient consumes.

Treatment usually focuses on providing intensive nutrition so that the patient receives proper nutrition, and addressing some of the metabolic abnormalities associated with the wasting syndrome. A doctor may also adjust a patient's medications to promote the development of an appetite, and techniques such as massage and physical therapy may be used to reduce muscle loss and to keep the patient active.


Patients with AIDS, cancer, congestive heart failure, and intestinal parasites all can experience this disorder. It is generally worse in men than in women. Doctors usually determine that a patient has cachexia when the patient loses five percent or more of his or her pre-diagnosis weight. Many treatment facilities take active steps to reduce or prevent wasting syndrome.

Friends and family members of patients with the disorder often find the physical changes alarming and disheartening, as the wasting syndrome is an obvious reminder that the patient is experiencing serious health problems. Individuals who are diagnosed with illnesses which often lead to cachexia may want to discuss this issue with close friends and family so that people are prepared, and friends and family may also be able to provide assistance which will help patients cope with wasting.

Quality of life for patients with wasting syndrome can be a major issue. With the wasting comes a loss of energy, and patients may start to feel listless, or start to give up. When cachexia leads to hospitalization, this can be extremely frustrating and psychologically distressing for the patient. It is important for hospitalized patients to be supported emotionally as well as physically by their medical teams so that they stay motivated and engaged in treatment.


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While it remains a controversial issue, studies have shown that marijuana can help patients re-establish their appetites while severely ill.

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