Rhabdomyolysis is a topic I've been sounding the alarm about for over a decade. Now, finally, others are starting to take this medical disorder seriously. While that's good news, the downside is there's still a lot of misunderstandings out there. I continue to see websites, magazine articles and videos providing simple answers to complex questions. Some people don't even pronounce the word correctly. As THE authority on exercise-induced rhabdo, let me address what I believe are the biggest myths and misunderstandings about this health disorder. Please share this with your friends so they know these facts too.
Also, See These Other Reviews
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- Mild Case of Rhabdo: Fact or Fiction?
- Can Spinning Cause Rhabdo?
- Personal Trainers & Rhabdomyolysis
- Is it Muscle Soreness or Rhabdo?
- Why Gyms Are Causing Rhabdo?
- Podcast: Rhabdo Myths and Facts
- Podcast: Rhabdo Genetic Traits
Myth 1: Drinking Water Prevents Rhabdomyolysis
The idea with this half-truth is if you just stay hydrated while you exercise, you won't get rhabdomyolysis. This a total myth. As I often tell people, water does not stop muscle fiber death. That's what rhabdo is – the destruction of your skeletal muscle fibers.
I do understand why people say this, however- because there is some truth to it. Rhabdo can cause kidney failure. This occurs because a protein, called myoglobin, is toxic to kidneys in high concentrations. Drinking fluids can help dilute the myoglobin and reduce its damaging effects on the kidneys.
But, drinking water does not stop rhabdomyolysis from occurring.
When it comes to the hydration myth, my fear is the individual who only hears the “drink water mantra” and stays home, trying to self-treat their symptoms.
I think this is a mistake.
Getting medical attention – rather than treating yourself – is the best thing to do if you think you have rhabdo.
Myth 2: Rhabdo Only Damages The Kidneys
It's a common misconception to believe rhabdomyolysis only leads to kidney failure. This is why so many “experts” recommend drinking water to alleviate the problem. But, what most do not realize is rhabdo is complicated and can also cause other health problems too such as:
- heart attacks /abnormal heart rhythms
- elevated liver enzymes
- muscle swelling which cuts off the blood supply
- very intense muscle pain
Hydration alone does not treat these other issues. In some cases, drinking too much water can make these other problems worse.
I understand why people place such an emphasis on kidney problems – It's serious and people often hear about kidney failure while in the hospital. But, I feel this leads to an overemphasis on just one symptom.
I think that's a mistake.
Myth 3: Your Urine Must Change Color
By far, the most commonly known side effect of rhabdomyolysis a change in the color of your urine. This is due to myoglobin being filtered through the kidneys. Often, the urine is described as looking like ice tea or cola-colored.
In reality, a spectrum of color changes is possible. For example, the urine may look lighter than ice tea or as dark as the darkest cola-colored beverage.
While often considered a “litmus test” for rhabdo, the fact is you can develop rhabdomyolysis and not see any change in the color of your urine.
Over the years, I've talked to several people who did not see a change in urine color – yet they still had rhabdo. That said, if your urine does look darker, it means you've lost at least 3.5 oz of muscle. It takes at least 3.5 oz (100 g) of muscle destruction to see a visible change in urine color.
Myth 4: Rhabdo Is A Short Term Problem
Judging from #rhabdo on social media, I've concluded most people don't take this disorder seriously. Some may even consider it a badge of honor. Their thinking is the condition is no big deal; you just spend a few days in the hospital and then return to normal activity.
This doesn't always happen.
Over the years, I've encountered those who have dealt with long-term problems after getting out of the hospital. Some have told me when they return to exercise, their limbs start to swell up again.
Still, others have told me they experience fatigue, which limits their ability to exercise and perform daily activities. Sometimes these symptoms can last several months AFTER being discharged from the hospital.
Related to this, I also believe some individuals experience PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder- after getting rhabdo. Many people tell me the same thing:
- I've never heard of this medical condition before
- It was the worst pain I've ever experienced
- I'm terrified of getting it again
And so they stop working out.
For the person who enjoys exercise – but now can't – this can cause a lot of life stress. Some have told me depression sets in at the thought of never being able to exercise like they used to. One individual told me he was so depressed at not being able to exercise again, he had thoughts of suicide.
Another long term problem is the burden of having to pay off the medical bills. I remember one woman telling me she received a bill for over $20,000 after getting rhabdomyolysis and spending several days in the hospital. Ironically, these expensive bills may result after a free personal training session at a gym.
Regardless, these unexpected medical bills only add to the trauma of this disorder.
Myth 5: Only Intense Exercise Causes Rhabdomyolysis
Many mistakenly believe you have to work out like a Navy Seal or Army Ranger to develop this disorder. While the condition has occurred in many physically demanding occupations like:
I've encountered those who developed rhabdo from activities that were not “intense.” For example, the condition has been documented to occur from gardening. Another report tells of a woman developing rhabdomyolysis from performing biceps curls with dumbbells, weighing only 10-15 pounds.
In this report, a 29-year-old man developed the condition after doing 30-40 sit-ups for a week. Most people would agree, that's not a lot of sit-ups especially when spread out over 5 days.
In another report, a 23-year-old woman developed rhabdo after performing 108 sit-ups during an exercise class. In this report, they called it White Collar rhabdomyolysis because the condition is starting to show up in white-collar office workers
One individual told me she developed rhabdo after painting a room. While neither gardening or painting may be considered “intense exertion,” one thread of commonality is the condition is often triggered after performing unusual /unaccustomed and repetitive movements.
To put it simply, rhabdo often happens after we do a lot of stuff we are not used to doing.
If the activity is repetitive (like cycling classes) and you are not used to doing it, the risk increases.
Myth 6: Personal Trainers Know About Rhabdo
Unfortunately, those who most need to know about this condition, often don't. I know this is true because I train personal trainers. The inconvenient truth is there has been and continues to be a system-wide failure to educate fitness professionals about rhabdomyolysis.
It does not matter who they are certified by. Fitness instructors either are not aware of this disorder or only have a faint idea about it.
As I write these words, major fitness organizations still do not address this important condition in their textbooks. Colleges are not off the hook either. I have met college graduates – with Master's degrees in exercise science – who have never been educated about this condition.
In today's age of intense exercise, there is no excuse for this oversight.
Ironically, in spite of the great need for rhabdo education in the health and wellness community, I've been told in private my rhabdo book is “not popular.” This is unfortunate in light of the fact lawyers retain me as a consultant during rhabdomyolysis lawsuits against personal trainers who accidentally trigger the condition.
Stopping Rhabdomyolysis Before It Starts
As I often say, the best defense against rhabdo is education. To that end, I sincerely hope this quick review helped you. If you want to contribute any rhabdomyolysis facts, myths or misunderstanding that I did not address- or want to share your personal story– leave a comment below.
Let's together help others avoid getting this medical condition.