At its core, rhabdo simply means the breakdown of muscle tissue, says Alexis Colvin, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the chief medical officer for the U.S. Tennis Association. As muscles break down, they release the enzyme creatine kinase (CK) and a protein called myoglobin into your bloodstream, which can lead to three serious health complications:
- Kidney failure: ICYDK, your kidneys filter your blood and produce urine. Myoglobin floating around in your blood stream can filter into your kidneys, damaging them, says Denise Pate, M.D., a physician at the Medical Offices of Manhattan and a certified spin instructor. This could ultimately lead to kidney failure—the biggest risk associated with rhabdo.
- Acute compartment syndrome: Think of your limbs as separate compartments that can be further divided into smaller compartments (your thigh, your lower leg, ankle, etc.). If enough swelling occurs in one section, it can halt anything going in and out (effectively creating a compartment shut off from the rest of your body). This can cause nerves, veins, and arteries in the area to die, says Dr. Pate, which may result in permanent and extensive muscle damage in the area.
- Electrolyte abnormalities: When your muscles break down, they can also release potassium and phosphorous into your blood, says Dr. Pate. Potassium control is super important for your heart to function correctly. Too much potassium in your blood could eventually lead to a heart arrhythmia (a heart rhythm problem which can become dangerous if it affects the heart’s ability to function, causing dizziness, fatigue, chest pain, shortness of breath, or even cardiac arrest).
The main risk you have to worry about, though, is going too hard, too fast with a new type of exercise. Dehydration can also play a part in increasing your risk. “I think it has a lot to do with how conditioned the person is,” says Dr. Pate. “Frequently, in rhabdo cases, you’re seeing people who are exercising hardcore for the first time, initially starting exercise, or starting a new type of exercise.”
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