"Asthenia" redirects here. The tortrix moth genus is nowadays considered a junior synonym of Epinotia.
ICD-10 M62.8
ICD-9 728.87 (728.9 before 10/01/03)
DiseasesDB 22832
MedlinePlus 003174
MeSH D018908

Weakness is a symptom represented, medically, by a number of different conditions, including: lack of muscle strength, malaise, dizziness, or fatigue.[1] The causes are many and can be divided into conditions that have true or perceived muscle weakness. True muscle weakness is a primary symptom of a variety of skeletal muscle diseases, including muscular dystrophy and inflammatory myopathy. It occurs in neuromuscular junction disorders, such as myasthenia gravis.



Weakness describes a number of symptoms, including: loss of muscle strength, malaise, dizziness or fatigue.[1] The term can be divided into two other more specific states, true weakness and perceived weakness.[1]

  • True weakness (or neuromuscular) describes a condition where the force exerted by the muscles is less than would be expected, for example muscular dystrophy.
  • Perceived weakness (or non-neuromuscular) describes a condition where a person feels more effort than normal is required to exert a given amount of force but actual muscle strength is normal, for example chronic fatigue syndrome.[2]

In some conditions, such as myasthenia gravis muscle strength is normal when resting, but true weakness occurs after the muscle has been subjected to exercise. This is also true for some cases of CFS, where objective post-exertion muscle weakness with delayed recovery time has been measured and is a feature of some of the published definitions.[3][4][5][6][7][8]


Asthenia (Greek: ασθένεια, lit. lack of strength but also disease) is a medical term referring to a condition in which the body lacks or has lost strength either as a whole or in any of its parts. It denotes symptoms of physical weakness and loss of strength. General asthenia occurs in many chronic wasting diseases (such as anemia and cancer), sleep disorders or chronic disorders of the heart, lungs or kidneys, and is probably most marked in diseases of the adrenal gland. Asthenia may be limited to certain organs or systems of organs, as in asthenopia, characterized by ready fatiguability. Asthenia is also a side effect of some medications and treatments, such as Ritonavir (a protease inhibitor used in HIV treatment), vaccines such as the HPV vaccine Gardasil[9] and fentanyl patches (an opioid used to treat pain).

Differentiating between psychogenic (perceived) asthenia and true asthenia with muscular weakness is often difficult, and in time apparent psychogenic asthenia accompanying many chronic disorders is seen to progress into a primary weakness.

Differential diagnosis

Weakness can be central, neural and peripheral. Central muscle weakness manifests as an overall, bodily or systemic, sense of energy deprivation, and peripheral weakness manifests as a local, muscle-specific incapacity to do work.[10][11] Neural weakness can be both central and peripheral.


The central component to muscle fatigue is generally described in terms of a reduction in the neural drive or nerve-based motor command to working muscles that results in a decline in the force output.[12][13][14] It has been suggested that the reduced neural drive during exercise may be a protective mechanism to prevent organ failure if the work was continued at the same intensity.[15][16] The exact mechanisms of central fatigue are unknown although there has been a great deal of interest in the role of serotonergic pathways.[17][18][19]


Nerves are responsible for controlling the contraction of muscles, determining the number, sequence and force of muscular contraction. Most movements require a force far below what a muscle could in potential generate, and barring pathology nervous fatigue is seldom an issue. For extremely powerful contractions that are close to the upper limit of a muscle's ability to generate force, nervous fatigue can be a limiting factor in untrained individuals. In novice strength trainers, the muscle's ability to generate force is most strongly limited by nerve’s ability to sustain a high-frequency signal. After a period of maximum contraction, the nerve’s signal reduces in frequency and the force generated by the contraction diminishes. There is no sensation of pain or discomfort, the muscle appears to simply ‘stop listening’ and gradually cease to move, often going backwards. As there is insufficient stress on the muscles and tendons, there will often be no delayed onset muscle soreness following the workout. Part of the process of strength training is increasing the nerve's ability to generate sustained, high frequency signals that allow a muscle to contract with their greatest force. It is this neural training that causes several weeks worth of rapid gains in strength, which level off once the nerve is generating maximum contractions and the muscle reaches its physiological limit. Past this point, training effects increase muscular strength through myofibrilar or sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and metabolic fatigue becomes the factor limiting contractile force.


Peripheral muscle fatigue during physical work is considered an inability for the body to supply sufficient energy or other metabolites to the contracting muscles to meet the increased energy demand. This is the most common case of physical fatigue—affecting a national average of 72% of adults in the work force in 2002. This causes contractile dysfunction that is manifested in the eventual reduction or lack of ability of a single muscle or local group of muscles to do work. The insufficiency of energy, i.e. sub-optimal aerobic metabolism, generally results in the accumulation of lactic acid and other acidic anaerobic metabolic by-products in the muscle, causing the stereotypical burning sensation of local muscle fatigue, though recent studies have indicated otherwise, actually finding that lactic acid is a source of energy.[20]

The fundamental difference between the peripheral and central theories of muscle fatigue is that the peripheral model of muscle fatigue assumes failure at one or more sites in the chain that initiates muscle contraction. Peripheral regulation is therefore dependent on the localised metabolic chemical conditions of the local muscle affected, whereas the central model of muscle fatigue is an integrated mechanism that works to preserve the integrity of the system by initiating muscle fatigue through muscle derecruitment, based on collective feedback from the periphery, before cellular or organ failure occurs. Therefore the feedback that is read by this central regulator could include chemical and mechanical as well as cognitive cues. The significance of each of these factors will depend on the nature of the fatigue-inducing work that is being performed.

Though not universally used, ‘metabolic fatigue’ is a common alternative term for peripheral muscle weakness, because of the reduction in contractile force due to the direct or indirect effects of the reduction of substrates or accumulation of metabolites within the muscle fiber. This can occur through a simple lack of energy to fuel contraction, or interference with the ability of Ca2+ to stimulate actin and myosin to contract.

Lactic acid

It was once believed that lactic acid build-up was the cause of muscle fatigue.[21] The assumption was lactic acid had a "pickling" effect on muscles, inhibiting their ability to contract. The impact of lactic acid on performance is now uncertain, it may assist or hinder muscle fatigue.

Produced as a by-product of fermentation, lactic acid can increase intracellular acidity of muscles. This can lower the sensitivity of contractile apparatus to Ca2+ but also has the effect of increasing cytoplasmic Ca2+ concentration through an inhibition of the chemical pump that actively transports calcium out of the cell. This counters inhibiting effects of K+ on muscular action potentials. Lactic acid also has a negating effect on the chloride ions in the muscles, reducing their inhibition of contraction and leaving potassium ions as the only restricting influence on muscle contractions, though the effects of potassium are much less than if there were no lactic acid to remove the chloride ions. Ultimately, it is uncertain if lactic acid reduces fatigue through increased intracellular calcium or increases fatigue through reduced sensitivity of contractile proteins to Ca2+.

Associated conditions

Many different conditions can cause weakness. In 2010 DiagnosisPro listed 464 possible cause.[22] True weakness may be due to problems with the nerves, neuromuscular junction or with muscles.


Muscle cells work by detecting a flow of electrical impulses from the brain, which signals them to contract through the release of calcium by the sarcoplasmic reticulum. Fatigue (reduced ability to generate force) may occur due to the nerve, or within the muscle cells themselves. New research from scientists at Columbia University suggests that muscle fatigue is caused by calcium leaking out of the muscle cell. This makes less calcium available for the muscle cell. In addition, the Columbia researchers propose that an enzyme activated by this released calcium eats away at muscle fibers.[23]

Substrates within the muscle generally serve to power muscular contractions. They include molecules such as adenosine triphosphate (ATP), glycogen and creatine phosphate. ATP binds to the myosin head and causes the ‘ratchetting’ that results in contraction according to the sliding filament model. Creatine phosphate stores energy so ATP can be rapidly regenerated within the muscle cells from adenosine diphosphate (ADP) and inorganic phosphate ions, allowing for sustained powerful contractions that last between 5–7 seconds. Glycogen is the intramuscular storage form of glucose, used to generate energy quickly once intramuscular creatine stores are exhausted, producing lactic acid as a metabolic byproduct. Contrary to common belief, lactic acid accumulation doesn't actually cause the burning sensation we feel when we exhaust our oxygen and oxidative metabolism, but in actuality, lactic acid in presence of oxygen recycles to produce pyruvate in the liver, which is known as the Cori cycle.

Substrates produce metabolic fatigue by being depleted during exercise, resulting in a lack of intracellular energy sources to fuel contractions. In essence, the muscle stops contracting because it lacks the energy to do so.


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