What Is Rhabdomyolysis?

What is rhabdomyolysis?How doing too much too soon can put you on the sidelines but probably not into dialysis.

Brock Armstrong
6-minute read
Episode #350

Photo of a woman in a spin classAccording to U.S. National Library of Medicine, rhabdomyolysis is the breakdown of muscle tissue that leads to the release of muscle fiber contents into the blood. When muscle is damaged, a protein called myoglobin is released into the bloodstream. It is then filtered out of the body by the kidneys. Rhabdomyolysis may be caused by injury or any other condition that damages skeletal muscle.

Recently there was an article published by the New York Times News Service titled As workouts intensify, a harmful side effect grows more common. The article tells the story of a woman named Christina D’Ambrosio who went to her first spin class on a stationary bike. You know the kind where you pedal like mad to top-40 hits as a spandex clad instructor whoops and hollers at you? You know, for motivation?

Well apparently D’Ambrosio, who was a “regular exerciser” (whatever that means), found the class more challenging than she had anticipated. By the end of the class her legs were “sore and wobbly.” Join the club, sister.

As the day went on, her legs hurt more and more, her urine changed to a cola shade of brown, and she was also nauseated. She went to the hospital, where a doctor told her that she had rhabdomyolysis (or Rhabdo for short).

Now the article went on to explain that Rhabdo is a rare but life-threatening condition often caused by extreme exercise. The article says that “it occurs when overworked muscles begin to die and leak their contents into the bloodstream, straining the kidneys and causing severe pain.” Which is true. Especially in Christina D’Ambrosio’s case. She had clearly overdone it and was paying the price.

Why Does This Matter?

If you follow fitness folks on social media even half as much as I do, you will know that this article has been shared, posted, reposted, printed and reprinted and heralded by all the fitness naysayers as yet another reason for them to remain sedentary. You know those people who have every excuse in the world not to workout and to also try to kill your runner’s high along the way? Yeah, you know the one. The one who quotes the title of the article “As Workouts Intensify, a Harmful Side Effect Grows More Common” and then jumps straight to the part where the doctor that they interviewed says something horrifying like “They are being pushed too hard, and they’re not trained to do this, and so they get really bad muscle trauma.”

“They are being pushed too hard, and they’re not trained to do this, and so they get really bad muscle trauma.”

Anyway, the reason I take such exception to this article is due to their explanation of rhabdo and for focusing so holey on its link to exercise. I mean sure, 26,000 people are affected by it each year in the USA and it can have serious side effects and complications such as muscle pains, weakness, vomiting, confusion, and an irregular heartbeat. The most problematic complication being that some of the muscle breakdown products (protein myoglobin) are actually very harmful to the kidneys and can lead to kidney failure.

That sounds scary, right? 26,000 people exercising themselves into kidney failure! What? Well, if you dive deeper, that is nowhere near the entire story. The article makes it sound like exercising yourself into rhabdo is just a single pedal stroke away. Like all us fit folks should just stop what we are doing before it is too late.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong Get-Fit Guy

Brock Armstrong was the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast between 2017 and 2021. He is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute.