Clinical review: intensive care unit acquired weakness

Crit Care. 2015 Aug 5;19(1):274. doi: 10.1186/s13054-015-0993-7.


A substantial number of patients admitted to the ICU because of an acute illness, complicated surgery, severe trauma, or burn injury will develop a de novo form of muscle weakness during the ICU stay that is referred to as "intensive care unit acquired weakness" (ICUAW). This ICUAW evoked by critical illness can be due to axonal neuropathy, primary myopathy, or both. Underlying pathophysiological mechanisms comprise microvascular, electrical, metabolic, and bioenergetic alterations, interacting in a complex way and culminating in loss of muscle strength and/or muscle atrophy. ICUAW is typically symmetrical and affects predominantly proximal limb muscles and respiratory muscles, whereas facial and ocular muscles are often spared. The main risk factors for ICUAW include high severity of illness upon admission, sepsis, multiple organ failure, prolonged immobilization, and hyperglycemia, and also older patients have a higher risk. The role of corticosteroids and neuromuscular blocking agents remains unclear. ICUAW is diagnosed in awake and cooperative patients by bedside manual testing of muscle strength and the severity is scored by the Medical Research Council sum score. In cases of atypical clinical presentation or evolution, additional electrophysiological testing may be required for differential diagnosis. The cornerstones of prevention are aggressive treatment of sepsis, early mobilization, preventing hyperglycemia with insulin, and avoiding the use parenteral nutrition during the first week of critical illness. Weak patients clearly have worse acute outcomes and consume more healthcare resources. Recovery usually occurs within weeks or months, although it may be incomplete with weakness persisting up to 2 years after ICU discharge. Prognosis appears compromised when the cause of ICUAW involves critical illness polyneuropathy, whereas isolated critical illness myopathy may have a better prognosis. In addition, ICUAW has shown to contribute to the risk of 1-year mortality. Future research should focus on new preventive and/or therapeutic strategies for this detrimental complication of critical illness and on clarifying how ICUAW contributes to poor longer-term prognosis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Autonomic Nervous System Diseases / physiopathology
  • Autophagy / physiology
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Blood Glucose / physiology
  • Critical Illness*
  • Electromyography
  • Hospital Mortality
  • Humans
  • Immobilization
  • Incidence
  • Intensive Care Units*
  • Length of Stay
  • Muscle Strength / physiology
  • Muscle Weakness / diagnosis
  • Muscle Weakness / physiopathology
  • Muscle Weakness / therapy*
  • Physical Therapy Modalities
  • Respiration, Artificial
  • Risk Factors
  • Sepsis / physiopathology
  • Sepsis / therapy


  • Biomarkers
  • Blood Glucose