A window beneath the skin: how computed tomography assessment of body composition can assist in the identification of hidden wasting conditions in oncology that profoundly impact outcomes

Proc Nutr Soc. 2018 May;77(2):135-151. doi: 10.1017/S0029665118000046.


Advancements in image-based technologies and body composition research over the past decade has led to increased understanding of the importance of muscle abnormalities, such as low muscle mass (sarcopenia), and more recently low muscle attenuation (MA), as important prognostic indicators of unfavourable outcomes in patients with cancer. Muscle abnormalities can be highly prevalent in patients with cancer (ranging between 10 and 90 %), depending on the cohort under investigation and diagnostic criteria used. Importantly, both low muscle mass and low MA have been associated with poorer tolerance to chemotherapy, increased risk of post-operative infectious and non-infectious complications, increased length of hospital stay and poorer survival in patients with cancer. Studies have shown that systemic antineoplastic treatment can exacerbate losses in muscle mass and MA, with reported loss of skeletal muscle between 3 and 5 % per 100 d, which are increased exponentially with progressive disease and proximity to death. At present, no effective medical intervention to improve muscle mass and MA exists. Most research to date has focused on treating muscle depletion as part of the cachexia syndrome using nutritional, exercise and pharmacological interventions; however, these single-agent therapies have not provided promising results. Rehabilitation care to modify body composition, either increasing muscle mass and/or MA should be conducted, and its respective impact on oncology outcomes explored. Although the optimal timing and treatment strategy for preventing or delaying the development of muscle abnormalities are yet to be determined, multimodal interventions initiated early in the disease trajectory appear to hold the most promise.

Keywords: CT computed tomography; DLT dose-limiting toxicity; GI gastrointestinal; HR hazard ratio; HU Hounsfield unit; MA muscle attenuation; SMA skeletal muscle area; SMI skeletal muscle index; Body composition; Cachexia; Cancer; Muscle attenuation; Sarcopenia; Survival.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Body Composition*
  • Cachexia / etiology
  • Humans
  • Muscle, Skeletal / pathology*
  • Muscular Atrophy / diagnosis
  • Muscular Atrophy / etiology
  • Muscular Atrophy / prevention & control*
  • Neoplasms / complications*
  • Sarcopenia / etiology
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed
  • Wasting Syndrome / diagnosis
  • Wasting Syndrome / etiology
  • Wasting Syndrome / prevention & control*