What is rhabdomyolysis?

Rhabdomyolysis can be a life-threatening condition caused by muscle breakdown and muscle death. This dangerous muscle damage can result from overexertion, trauma, toxic substances or disease.

As muscle cells disintegrate, they release a protein called myoglobin into the blood. The kidneys are responsible for removing this myoglobin from the blood so urine can flush it out of the body.

In large quantities, myoglobin can damage the kidneys. If the kidneys cannot get rid of the waste fast enough, kidney failure and death can occur.

How common is rhabdomyolysis?

Rhabdomyolysis (also called rhabdo) is relatively rare. Every year, about 26,000 people develop this condition.

Who is affected by rhabdomyolysis?

Although rhabdomyolysis can happen to anyone, certain groups have a higher risk than others of developing the condition. People with an increased chance of getting rhabdomyolysis include:

  • Endurance athletes: Marathon runners, people who take spin classes, and others who do high-intensity interval exercises have a higher risk of getting rhabdomyolysis. These groups may push themselves too hard without resting.
  • Firefighters: Firefighters can develop the condition after physical exertion in hot temperatures. Overheating can cause rhabdomyolysis.
  • Service members: People in the military, especially those who are in boot camp or are undergoing intense training, have an increased risk of developing rhabdomyolysis.
  • Older people: People who fall, can’t get up, and aren’t discovered for an extended time can get rhabdomyolysis.

How do people get rhabdomyolysis?

Several factors can lead to rhabdomyolysis. Causes of rhabdomyolysis include:

  • High-intensity exercise: Jumping into an exercise program too fast can lead to rhabdomyolysis when muscles don’t have time to heal after an intense workout.
  • Severe dehydration and overheating: Heat causes faster muscle breakdown. Your kidneys can’t dispose of all the waste without plenty of fluids.
  • Trauma: A severe burn, lightning strike, or crushing injury can cause muscle fibers to disintegrate rapidly.
  • Medications: Some medications can cause muscle breakdown, including antipsychotic, antidepressant, and antiviral drugs. Statin medications can also lead to rhabdomyolysis, especially in people who have diabetes or liver disease.
  • Illegal drugs and alcohol: Heroin, LSD, cocaine, and excessive alcohol are toxic to the body and can cause muscles to deteriorate.
  • Long periods of inactivity: People who fall, lose consciousness, and can’t get up for an extended time can develop rhabdo.

Can rhabdomyolysis be inherited?

Rhabdomyolysis itself cannot be inherited (passed down in families). But certain genetic disorders can increase your risk of developing the condition. People can get rhabdomyolysis as a result of an inherited muscle disease (such as muscular dystrophy).

People who have certain metabolic or mitochondrial disorders also have a higher risk of rhabdomyolysis. A metabolic disorder affects the way energy moves into the cells. Mitochondrial disorders occur when your body doesn’t correctly produce energy for your cells.

What are the symptoms of rhabdomyolysis?

Rhabdomyolysis symptoms can range from mild to severe. Symptoms usually develop one to three days after the muscle injury, though some people may not even notice muscle soreness. The main signs of rhabdomyolysis include:

  • Muscle swelling.
  • Weak, tender and sore muscles.
  • Dark urine that is brown, red or tea-colored.

Some people also experience dehydration or decreased urination, nausea, or loss of consciousness.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/04/2019.

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