What Is Rhabdo? It's Not Just "CrossFit and Spinning Disease"

POPSUGAR Photography | Kathryna Hancock
POPSUGAR Photography | Kathryna Hancock

You may have heard the scares lately about "Spinning disease" . . . or maybe it has been branded "CrossFit disease" in your community. Either way, the labeling is not painting a clear picture. Have you heard of rhabdomyolisis? Referred as "rhabdo," for short, this serious medical condition can be life threatening if you don't catch it — and healthy, young people who exercise frequently can be at risk. Here's what you need to know.

What Is It?

Rhabdomyolysis is a rapid breakdown of skeletal muscle tissue. This breakdown in turn releases myoglobin [a protein from your muscle tissue] into your bloodstream, which your body doesn't need — it's a "waste." This waste ends up at your kidneys where it needs to be filtered out. But the thing is, your kidneys aren't equipped to handle this amount of waste (those little guys are good at their job, but they can only do so much!). The influx of waste and overload on your kidneys can lead to kidney damage or kidney failure, which can be fatal.

What Are Some Symptoms and Signs?

"Initial symptoms can be very subtle," said Dr. Stephanie Long, MD at One Medical. She gave us some information on what to look out for (and why it happens):

  • Muscle weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Soreness
  • Bruising
  • Changes to your urine (low urine output or infrequent urination; dark, tea-colored urine)
  • Fever
  • Sense of malaise, or feeling sick
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Agitation

How Do You Get It?

Despite rhabdo being referred to as "CrossFit Disease" and "Spinning Disease," it's not exclusive to exercise.

  • Trauma. Recent "car accidents, crushing injuries to limbs, [or] blocked blood vessels," can trigger rhabdomyolysis, as well as "lying in one place or position for an excess period of time." Physical trauma is the number-one cause for this muscular breakdown.
  • Excess Exercise. Are you going too hard? "Excess exertion from intense workouts," can cause rhabdo. Dr. Long specifically cited "Spinning and CrossFit." This is the instance in which, "young, healthy individuals" are impacted — and the reason why we're hearing about rhabdo more in mainstream media and common conversations. She said, "Spinning and CrossFit are main factors we can identify prior to rhabdomyolysis. It's recommended to start low and go slow with any new workout. Build up as your body tolerates."
  • Medications. Talk with your doctor before starting any of the following medications to ensure that you're watching out for rhabdo symptoms. "The most notorious of which are statins [a type of medication], that are prescribed to lower cholesterol or after strokes," said Dr. Long. This includes "Atorvastatin (Lipitor), Rosuvastatin (Crestor), and Pravastatin (Pravachol)." She noted that even antibiotics can be associated with rhabdo — cyclosporine or erythromycin, specifically — as well as "a gout treatment called colchicine."
  • Illegal drugs. Dr. Long noted that "Illicit substances can also lead to rhabdomyolysis, including cocaine, amphetamines, ecstasy, or LSD." Yet another reason to stay off of drugs!
  • Metabolic disorders. This is more complex, and you'll need to work with a medical provider, but "other reasons [for rhabdomyolysis] would be metabolic disorders like hypothyroidism or diabetic ketoacidosis."
  • Infections. There are even more rare (and seemingly random) causes for rhabdo, too. "It can occur with viral or bacterial infections, or as a result of a snakebite," she said. "Less common reasons would be rare genetic disorders."

We asked Dr. Long why CrossFit and Spinning tend to yield more cases of rhabdo, and she told us it has to do with the intensity of these workouts. "For patients who are new to a sport or activity, it's easy not to understand where you are at [in terms of physical capability] and what is too intense for your muscles," she told POPSUGAR. "People get dehydrated, and they are doing intense, fast repetitions with a lot of muscle load. You need to build up to that over time."

How Do You Prevent It?

Want to keep rhabdo from happening to you? Of course you do. According to Dr. Long, it's a very simple three-step process:

  • Hydrate
  • Listen to your body
  • Increase intensity of workouts gradually

How Do You Treat It?

Rhabdo requires immediate medical attention. "We treat rhabdomyolysis with fluid rehydration in the hospital," Dr. Long told POPSUGAR. "A very small percentage of the time, a patient's kidneys need more aggressive support and require dialysis." She noted that if you experience any of the aforementioned symptoms "after a tough, new workout or starting a new medication, like a statin," visit your healthcare provider immediately.