Rhabdomyolysis happens when muscle tissue is destroyed and the muscle fibres break down, releasing their contents into the bloodstream. This can lead to problems such as kidney failure. Rarely, rhabdomyolysis can cause death. However, when treated early, the chances of a recovery are high.
What is rhabdomyolysis?
Rhabdomyolysis is a serious condition caused by muscle injury.
When muscle tissue gets seriously injured, it breaks down and dies, releasing its contents, including a protein called myoglobin, into the bloodstream.
The kidneys filter out myoglobin, but since too much myoglobin is harmful to kidney cells, rhabdomyolysis can lead to kidney complications.
Causes of rhabdomyolysis
Rhabdomyolysis is caused by direct or indirect injury to muscle tissue, such as:
- trauma or crush injuries, for example, from a car accident
- taking illegal drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines or heroin
- extreme muscle exertion, for example, running marathons
- a side effect of some medicines, such as statins (although the risk is very low)
- prolonged muscle pressure, for example when someone is lying unconscious on a hard surface
- very high body temperature (hyperthermia) or heat stroke.
Common rhabdomyolysis symptoms include:
- muscle pain or tenderness, especially in the shoulders, thighs or lower back
- muscle weakness or stiffness, or trouble moving arms or legs
- confusion, dehydration or fever
- lack of consciousness
- dark red or brown urine, or reduced or no urine output.
If not treated early, rhabdomyolysis can lead to complications, such as:
- very high potassium levels in the blood (hyperkalaemia); this can lead to an irregular heartbeat or cardiac arrest
- kidney failure or problems with the liver
- compartment syndrome; this occurs when too much pressure builds up in the injured group of muscles (compartment). The extreme pressure hinders blood flow to and from the affected tissues and can cause further muscle damage and death.
Rhabdomyolysis is often diagnosed in hospital. Physical examination, blood tests and urine tests are all needed. Other tests may be needed too.
Rhabdomyolysis is usually treated in hospital, with intravenous fluids to help you produce enough urine and prevent kidney failure.
Rarely, dialysis is needed if kidney function is poor. If you have compartment syndrome, you may need immediate surgery to avoid further muscle death or nerve damage.
Early diagnosis and treatment of rhabdomyolysis and its causes increases your chances of a full recovery.
Last reviewed: May 2017