Rhabdomyolysis Symptoms and Causes

Dr. Wedro Weighs In On the University of Iowa's Football Players Hospitalization

Medical Author: Benjamin C. Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM
Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

They might be called the unlucky 13. At the end of a strenuous workout, a baker's dozen University of Iowa football players ended up in the hospital with rhabdomyolysis (rhabdo=skeleton +myo=muscle + lysis=breakdown), a condition in which muscles break down quickly and spill their contents into the blood stream. Myoglobin is a protein that is contained in muscle cells, and if enough is spilled into the blood stream, it can clog the kidney's filtering system and lead to kidney failure and a variety of other serious medical consequences and complications. While muscles routinely get sore after physical activity, rhabdomyolysis takes that muscle injury to a higher level.

For a muscle to contract or squeeze, it needs access to adequate water, electrolytes, glucose, and oxygen for aerobic metabolism. Then the muscle needs time to recover and remove lactic acid. But if the work that the muscle is asked to do overwhelms aerobic metabolism, muscle cells and fibers can be damaged, swell, and leak their chemicals into the blood stream. Mild injury happens routinely with normal activity, and body is able to recover without consequences, except perhaps for muscle soreness.