When you begin a workout regimen with Aaptiv, you assume that you’ve begun a new path toward health. When a condition being dubbed as the “Spinning Disease” or “CrossFit Disease” starts gaining attention in the media as a serious illness plaguing young, healthy athletes, it’s normal to shudder in your sneakers.
Although it has been popping up a lot in the news lately, rhabdomyolysis (or rhabdo for short), isn’t really a “new” condition. It’s actually well known in the medical world.
It is a serious condition that, in worst-case scenarios, can lead to acute kidney injury—or even death. But before you forego your favorite HIIT class, keep reading to learn exactly what rhabdo is and if you’re at risk.
What is it?
Simply put, rhabdomyolysis is a syndrome that occurs due to muscle breakdown in the body caused by injury to the muscles, explains Dr. Leslie Hamlett, a nephrology specialist at Freeman Health System in Joplin, MO.
“After significant muscle injury, toxic compounds called creatine kinase (CK) and myoglobin are released into the plasma,” she says. Because the kidneys are responsible for excreting excess CK and myoglobin, an appearance of large quantities of them can cause kidney failure,” Hamlett said.
But that’s not all. Dr. Hamlett explains that cardiac arrest can occur due to high potassium from the muscle breakdown and the inability of the kidneys to excrete potassium from the body. Not only can rhabdo treatment require hospitalization and aggressive IV fluids and medications to correct electrolytes but also, Dr. Hamlett explains that dialysis might be needed if the kidneys completely fail. “Sometime dialysis is necessary for weeks until the kidney function recovers,” she says. In some instances, dialysis may be permanent.
Who can get it?
Dr. Hamlett explains that rhabdo is most commonly seen in those who have been hospitalized due to trauma, such as from a car accident. Or it can occur to those who have fallen and can’t get up for hours (or even those who pass out from drugs or alcohol and don’t move for several hours). However, exercise is a known cause of the condition. “Anyone can be at risk for rhabdomyolysis if muscles are injured,” she says.
In fact, she says she’s not surprised that those participating in intense workouts such as spin or CrossFit have been reporting rhabdo, noting that other patients she’s seen diagnosed with it have participated in activities like P90X and marathon running.
“I think athletes crave the pain and burn. It makes them feel like they did a good job and worked hard,” she says. “I think this is what might get them into trouble.” Because the symptoms of rhabdo are often the same as those of a really tough workout, they’re easy to ignore early on.
What are the symptoms?
So how do you know if you’re feeling the burn or if it’s something more? Dr. Hamlett explains that symptoms of rhabdomyolysis include muscle aches, weakness, muscle swelling, and very dark urine. “If severe, kidney failure can occur, which causes nausea, vomiting, confusion, muscle jerking, swelling, shortness of breath,” she says.
Think rhabdo is only a worry for those who start a new workout or aren’t as fit? Think again. “It can happen in very fit individuals as well,” says Dr. Hamlett. “The less fit are at increased risk over those who exercise routinely, however it can happen in those that are in excellent physical condition if given the right circumstances.”
What can I do?
For starters, dehydration and working out in excessive heat can be triggers of rhabdo, so staying well hydrated and maintaining a normal body temperature is key, says Dr. Hamlett. Other things you can do to decrease your risk are:
- Avoid alcohol and drugs
- Avoid weight loss meds such as Phenteramine while doing intense exercise
- Eat protein and carbohydrates after intense exercise
- Drink fluids with electrolytes
- Take Vitamin C, which may help with prevention of renal failure associated with rhabdo
If you think you might have symptoms of rhabdo contact your doctor immediately to be sure. If the symptoms are severe and you notice very dark urine, Dr. Hamletts says IV fluids are needed and you should go to the emergency room ASAP. Simple lab tests can be done to evaluate for rhabdo, so see a professional for a proper diagnosis.
Rhabdo is a serious condition that those involved in intense workouts should be aware of. However, you don’t have to give up your favorite Aaptiv workout or live in fear.
Educating yourself on the symptoms, staying hydrated, avoiding working out in excessive heat, and knowing your limit (hey, we all have one!) can help keep you healthy and safe.