Skeletal muscles in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: Deconditioning, or myopathy?


Peter D. Wagner, Division of Physiology, University of California, San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, DEPT 0623A, La Jolla, CA 92093-0623, USA. Email:


Abstract:  In recent years, COPD has become increasingly thought of as a systemic disease affecting many tissues and organs in addition to the lungs. The skeletal muscles in particular have been the target of much research focusing on whether the universally observed exercise limitation reflects a systemic myopathic effect of COPD, or simply the consequences of extreme, long-term inactivity. In this paper, the evidence is reviewed for COPD patients without loss of muscle mass and who are not taking systemic steroids. While altered levels of antioxidant defences (lower), circulating inflammatory biomarkers (higher) and anabolic hormones (lower) have been found in COPD, cause and effect remains to be established for the link of inflammation/oxidative stress to muscle dysfunction. Other evidence used to propose a myopathic state (early lactate release, reduced power output, lower metabolic enzyme capacities, greater phosphocreatine breakdown and slower phosphocreatine restoration after exercise, and altered fibre type distribution) also occur in normal subjects who are extremely inactive. Furthermore, intense small muscle mass training can normalize small muscle function in these patients. Based on these data, it remains to be shown that the muscles in COPD patients without loss of muscle mass are myopathic. The interesting discussion about systemic effects of COPD should not get in the way of systematic muscle training, which has been shown to be an effective component of rehabilitation.