Muscle Weakness in Adults: Evaluation and Differential Diagnosis

Am Fam Physician. 2020 Jan 15;101(2):95-108.


Although the prevalence of muscle weakness in the general population is uncertain, it occurs in about 5% of U.S. adults 60 years and older. Determining the cause of muscle weakness can be challenging. True muscle weakness must first be differentiated from subjective fatigue or pain-related motor impairment with normal motor strength. Muscle weakness should then be graded objectively using a formal tool such as the Medical Research Council Manual Muscle Testing scale. The differential diagnosis of true muscle weakness is extensive, including neurologic, rheumatologic, endocrine, genetic, medication- or toxin-related, and infectious etiologies. A stepwise approach to narrowing this differential diagnosis relies on the history and physical examination combined with knowledge of the potential etiologies. Frailty and sarcopenia are clinical syndromes occurring in older people that can present with generalized weakness. Asymmetric weakness is more common in neurologic conditions, whereas pain is more common in neuropathies or radiculopathies. Identifying abnormal findings, such as Chvostek sign, Babinski reflex, hoarse voice, and muscle atrophy, will narrow the possible diagnoses. Laboratory testing, including electrolyte, thyroid-stimulating hormone, and creatine kinase measurements, may also be helpful. Magnetic resonance imaging is indicated if there is concern for acute neurologic conditions, such as stroke or cauda equina syndrome, and may also guide muscle biopsy. Electromyography is indicated when certain diagnoses are being considered, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, myasthenia gravis, neuropathy, and radiculopathy, and may also guide biopsy. If the etiology remains unclear, specialist consultation or muscle biopsy may be necessary to reach a diagnosis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Humans
  • Muscle Weakness / diagnosis*
  • Muscle Weakness / physiopathology*
  • Muscles / physiopathology
  • Muscular Diseases / diagnosis
  • Neurologic Examination / methods
  • Neurologic Examination / standards*
  • Neurology / standards