Intensive care unit-acquired weakness: unanswered questions and targets for future research

F1000Res. 2019 Apr 17;8:F1000 Faculty Rev-508. doi: 10.12688/f1000research.17376.1. eCollection 2019.


Intensive care unit-acquired weakness (ICU-AW) is the most common neuromuscular impairment in critically ill patients. We discuss critical aspects of ICU-AW that have not been completely defined or that are still under discussion. Critical illness polyneuropathy, myopathy, and muscle atrophy contribute in various proportions to ICU-AW. Diagnosis of ICU-AW is clinical and is based on Medical Research Council sum score and handgrip dynamometry for limb weakness and recognition of a patient's ventilator dependency or difficult weaning from artificial ventilation for diaphragmatic weakness (DW). ICU-AW can be caused by a critical illness polyneuropathy, a critical illness myopathy, or muscle disuse atrophy, alone or in combination. Its diagnosis requires both clinical assessment of muscle strength and complete electrophysiological evaluation of peripheral nerves and muscles. The peroneal nerve test (PENT) is a quick simplified electrophysiological test with high sensitivity and good specificity that can be used instead of complete electrophysiological evaluation as a screening test in non-cooperative patients. DW, assessed by bilateral phrenic nerve magnetic stimulation or diaphragm ultrasound, can be an isolated event without concurrent limb muscle involvement. Therefore, it remains uncertain whether DW and limb weakness are different manifestations of the same syndrome or are two distinct entities. Delirium is often associated with ICU-AW but a clear correlation between these two entities requires further studies. Artificial nutrition may have an impact on ICU-AW, but no study has assessed the impact of nutrition on ICU-AW as the primary outcome. Early mobilization improves activity limitation at hospital discharge if it is started early in the ICU, but beneficial long-term effects are not established. Determinants of ICU-AW can be many and can interact with each other. Therefore, future studies assessing early mobilization should consider a holistic patient approach with consideration of all components that may lead to muscle weakness.

Keywords: Critical Illness Myopathy; Critical Illness Polyneuromyopathy; Critical Illness Polyneuropathy; ICU-acquired weakness; Muscle weakness; muscle atrophy CRIMYNE.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Critical Illness*
  • Diaphragm / physiopathology
  • Hand Strength
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units*
  • Muscle Weakness / etiology*
  • Muscle Weakness / therapy*
  • Muscular Atrophy / complications
  • Muscular Diseases / complications
  • Polyneuropathies / complications
  • Respiration, Artificial

Grant support

The author(s) declared that no grants were involved in supporting this work.