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Rhabdomyolysis: Why Every Athlete Should Know the Term

February 11, 2011

It may have a funny sounding name, but the symptoms and potential consequences of rhabdomyolysis are anything but. In the most serious cases, it can even be fatal. Unfortunately, it seems to be an increasing issue with athletes. Take the University of Iowa’s varsity football team which had 12 players suffer from the condition recently, for example. So just what is rhabdomyolysis?  Here’s what every athlete should know.

RHABDOMYOLYSIS DEFINED

Rhabdomyolysis is the rapid breakdown of muscle fibers that leads to the release of myoglobin, a component of muscle fiber, into the bloodstream. While in the bloodstream myoglobin can break down into several harmful compounds before reaching the kidneys to be filtered out of the body. It is these harmful compounds that can plug the filtering tubes within the kidney and lead to kidney damage or even kidney failure.

Rhabdomyolysis can also lead to a serious complication known as compartment syndrome. This is caused by the injury to muscle which leads swelling (edema) and increased pressure to a specified area of the body where the injury occurred. Due to the extreme pressure circulation is compromised and can cause further tissue damage or breakdown (necrosis) leading to tremendous discomfort and pain.

WHO’S AT RISK?

Any trauma that leads to muscle breakdown can result in rhabdomyolysis. This includes incidents such as car accidents, earthquakes (crush syndrome) or severe burns. Those taking statins or some psychiatric drugs are also at risk due to medication side effects.

While athletes aren’t the most common population to suffer from this condition, it is becoming more prevalent in the area of athletics. Why? Some theorize it is due to the culture of sports that commonly takes the “no pain, no gain” mentality. That mentality coupled with an increase of extreme workouts meant to produce quick results can lead to overexertion and potentially, rhabdomyolysis. Athletes most at risk include marathon runners and military or police recruits that are required to undergo vigorous training regimens to meet fitness requirements.  

SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS

The most common symptoms include:

  • Abnormal urine color (dark, red, or tea colored)
  • Extreme muscle soreness, stiffness, or muscle ache
  • Muscle weakness of the affected area
  • General weakness
  • Edema

HOW IS IT TREATED?

In mild cases that don’t exhibit complications, oral rehydration is usually sufficient. In more severe cases in which hospitalization is required aggressive fluid therapy is typical. This is intended to help prevent harm to the kidneys by rapidly flushing myoglobin out of the kidneys either by IV or dialysis, depending on severity.  

PREVENTION

The best way to prevent rhabdomyolysis from occurring due to exercise is to restrain from extremely strenuous physical activity, especially if it is well beyond your current fitness level. If participating in extreme workouts be sure to drink plenty of fluids to help flush out myoglobin from the body.

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