Whether you enjoy an intense workout, a challenging spin class or competing in marathons, swimming or bodybuilding, you need to be aware of a condition called rhabdomyolysis.

Rhabdomyolysis occurs when overworked skeletal muscles break down, die, and release proteins called myoglobins into the bloodstream. In large numbers, myoglobins cause kidney damage. Left untreated rhabdomyolysis can cause permanent kidney damage, kidney failure, amputation, or even death.

Exertional rhabdomyolysis is related with extreme, intense physical effort.

The condition, also known as Rhabdo or “Uncle Rhabdo,” can occur when a person pushes his or her body too hard or too fast. This level of exertion often occurs during an intense workout, a challenging competitive training session, or when high temperatures combine with intense effort on the job. The condition is rare, but it has been reported more often in the media in the last 15 years.

In her December 2005, New York Times article, “Getting Fit, Even if It Kills You,” Stephanie Cooperman recounts the experience of a former army ranger who spent a few days in intensive care after a particularly grueling CrossFit workout session. In her article, Cooperman also quotes, Glassman as saying, “It can kill you…I’ve always been completely honest about that.”

That’s a sobering statement. It’s also a good reason for people who enjoy high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts, take part in a grueling weight training workout, or work physically hard in high temperatures to pay attention to their need for recovery. Whether you work out at the gym or on the job, knowing and listening to your body can help you avoid rhabdomyolysis.

According to MedlinePlus.org, you may be at a greater risk of developing exertional rhabdomyolysis if you:

  • Exert extreme physical effort
  • Are severely dehydrated
  • Have low-phosphate levels
  • Experience extreme body temperatures
  • Are crushed under a weight
  • Use statins to treat cholesterol
  • Take amphetamines (such as Adderall for treatment of ADHD)
  • Are genetically predisposed to muscular disorders

If you notice any of the symptoms of rhabdomyolysis, contact your healthcare provider, IMMEDIATELY. The most common warning signs include:

  • Unusual muscle pain and weakness
  • Muscle swelling
  • Urinating less often
  • Cola- or tea-colored urine

 Take care to prevent rhabdomyolysis.

You may decrease your risk of rhabdomyolysis, by staying hydrated. Drink plenty of fluids before, during and after strenuous physical activity. Increasing your fluids will help you flush the broken-down muscle proteins out of your kidneys.

Another way to avoid rhabdo is to slowly build strength and endurance. This is especially important if you are new to a training program. Avoid doing too much too soon. Allow your body ample time to recover and adjust to the new demands you are placing on it.

Listen to your body during and after working out.

When it comes to exercise or physical work, too much of a good thing can have a negative effect. Your body may give you subtle warning signs that you are working out too hard.

If you feel stressed, irritable and fatigued, it could be a sign that you’re suffering from the first signs of overexertion. Sleepless nights, incredible thirst, and increased joint and muscle soreness are also signs that it might be time to take a break and decrease the intensity level of your exertion. Your body may be telling you it needs some time to recover.

Stop your workout or working immediately if you:

  • Feel nauseous
  • Experience pain
  • Cannot recover during rest breaks
  • Need help to walk or stand up
  • Need to lay down to recover after an intense effort
  • Cannot catch your breath in a normal amount of time

If you have unusual muscle pain and swelling in the hours and days following a physically demanding workout, training session or job, you may be experiencing the first symptoms of rhabdomyolysis.

Do not tough it out. 

If you experience symptoms, contact your primary care provider or a sports medicine specialist and seek medical treatment as soon as possible. It may save your kidneys, your extremities, or your life.