Background: Muscle weakness is a common but unexplained feature of dialysis patients. This study investigated the prevalence and causes of muscle weakness in dialysis patients by examining the quadriceps muscle force and contractile properties.
Methods: The quadriceps femoris was studied in terms of force, force-frequency curve, and speed of muscle relaxation in 49 dialysis patients and 27 healthy subjects. In addition nutritional, haematological, biochemical, and histological assessments were performed, and steps of force generation were analysed to reach the possible mechanisms leading to the observed weakness.
Results: Muscle weakness, though invariable as a symptom, was subtle or absent on clinical examination. Quadriceps force measurements, however, revealed unequivocal weakness in most of the patients (71%). The quadriceps muscle was weaker (317 +/- 115 versus 460 +/- 159 N, P < 0.01) compared to healthy individuals, but there was no evidence of impaired excitation-contraction coupling (0.79 +/- 0.05 versus 0.76 +/- 0.07, P = 0.1). Among dialysis patients the older and the malnourished (n = 23) were the weaker but there was no relationship to the type or duration of dialysis. The serum albumin was the only biochemical parameter related to the muscle force (r = 0.6, P = 0.01). The other most prominent abnormality of quadriceps muscle function observed in this study was slowing of relaxation (patients versus controls; 8.7 +/- 1.8% versus 10.8 +/- 1.1% force loss/10 ms, P < 0.0001) particularly in the malnourished group (malnourished versus well nourished; 8.3 +/- 2.1 versus 9.4 +/- 0.95, P = 0.03). Muscle histology was investigated (n = 12) and revealed that type II fibres were mildly atrophic in 40% of the biopsies in most areas, but predominantly type IIB. Although type IIB fibre areas are slightly smaller in the dialysis patients compared to the controls, this was not statistically significant (3025 +/- 578 versus 4406 +/- 1582, P = 0.1) except in the malnourished group compared to the well-nourished dialysis patients (2092 +/- 304 versus 4346 +/- 1496, P = 0.04), and in the malnourished dialysis patients type IIB fibre area was significantly correlated to the strength (r = 0.6, P = 0.02).
Conclusions: The only significant predictor of loss of muscle strength and abnormality of relaxation in this study was the nutritional state. A regular assessment of the nutritional state is required to ensure adequate nutrition to prevent the observed abnormalities of the skeletal muscles.