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What you need to know about rhabdomyolysis, the scary post-workout diagnosis everyone’s talking about


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Photo: Thinkstock/Jacob Lund

It’s very likely that in the past few months, you’ve seen headlines cautioning spin-lovers and workout warriors and about the “terrifying,” “horrifying,” or “life-threatening” disease you’re at risk for when you hop on a spin bike or push yourself too hard during a workout.

After trying his hand at SoulCycle, one man was left not just with a whole lot of sweat, but also with “excruciating thigh pain,” according to CNN. And it wasn’t just sore quads from tapping it back for 45 minutes—it was actually a more serious condition called rhabdomyolysis, which required an ER visit and a week-long hospital stay.

Rhabdomyolysis—a hard-to-spell term that essentially means the breakdown of the muscles—is definitely serious and scary, but here’s what you should know before you clip out of your bike and throw away your unitard.

“I’ve had patients come in who can’t walk. They can’t get out of bed. They call 911 because their muscles don’t work.”

First, rhabdomyolysis isn’t just a workout related health concern. The affliction dates back to World War II, and it happens anytime a muscle experiences trauma. And though the actual muscle breakdown is an issue, it’s secondary to the release of myoglobin, a protein that poisons the kidneys.

“I’ve had patients come in who can’t walk,” Derek Fine, MD, associate professor of medicine and interim chief of nephrology at Johns Hopkins Medicine tells CNN. “They can’t get out of bed. They call 911 because their muscles don’t work.”

The reason exercise-induced rhabdomyolysis is popping up in the news lately is likely because super intense, go-hard-or-go-home workouts are on the rise. The symptoms are mostly things you’ve probably experienced post-workout, but worse: excruciating muscle pain, swollen thighs, nausea, difficulty bending at the knees, and, in some cases, dark brown urine.

The key, doctors say, is truly listening to your body, because rhabdomyolysis can occur in anyone from super-fit marathoners busting out two-a-days to first-time aspiring SoulCyclers. The condition has more to do with intensely working a specific muscle group or pushing yourself way too hard than it does your current fitness ability. To avoid rhabdomyolysis, ease your way into the exercise and let the instructor know if it’s your first time.

If you think you have rhabdomyolysis, definitely see a doctor. The worst-case scenario is kidney shutdown, which will result in being placed on dialysis. For minor cases, you’ll probably be hooked up to an IV until the toxins are flushed out and the swelling goes down.

Long diagnosis short: show your body lots of love, and it’ll do its best to love you back.

Originally published July 27, 2017; updated June 1, 2018.

If you have non-life-threatening case of DOMS, try Julie Johnston’s trick for relieving the pain, these three yoga poses to promote recovery, or these tricks for relieving muscle soreness.

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