Rhabdomyolysis: The Danger of Going to the Gym that No-one Tells You About

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Everyone thinks that going to the gym is always good for your health, but working out should be done in moderation.

I learnt this recently as I began to work out my arms more at the gym. I thought I was strong and essentially ‘a gym lad’. But evidently, I was getting too big for my boots. 

One Friday, I went particularly hard at the gym. I felt fine afterwards, my arms felt that gym ‘swoll’ that I had come to enjoy. But as the weekend went on, I could feel something was not right. My arms began swelling beyond the normal, and I frantically searched the internet for a self-diagnosis. 

The overwhelming majority of websites suggested that I had Rhabdomyolysis, or Rhabdo for short; a rare medical condition caused by multiple things. The cause of mine was extreme muscle strain and had been worsened by drinking alcohol during the course of the weekend.

My overexertion at the gym had caused the muscle cells in my arms to burst and release a toxic chemical, creatine kinase, into my bloodstream. When I self-diagnosed myself on Saturday morning, I was still hopeful that I was overreacting. I did not have all of the symptoms so surely my puffy arms would deflate eventually. They did not, and I most certainly did not help myself by going out that weekend: drinking alcohol makes you more dehydrated, when I actually needed the opposite. I needed fluids to flush out the toxic chemical in my blood. 

By Sunday morning my arms had become un-recognisable – I had sausages for arms – this was NOT normal. My name was no longer just Lucie, I was Lucie Large Arms. Soon I would be Violet Beauregarde’s arm double.

To put an end to the jokes at the expense of my arms, I decided it would be best to see the doctor on Monday. My suspicions could have been incorrect because I did not have all the symptoms, but I did not want to wait any longer as I could be potentially causing long term damage to my kidneys. If I had not gone to the doctors, I could have developed kidney failure. 

When I went to the doctor, they referred me to the Leeds General Infirmary. I told the doctors of my suspicions that it was Rhabdo, and low and behold after blood tests, the doctors were shocked to inform me that I was right; my creatine kinase (CK) levels were 6000 u/l. 

Reality had hit. I was not as invincible as I had previously thought. I was put on an IV drip in hospital for three days, and released from the hospital only on the condition that I would drink 2-3 litres per day for the next few days. The following days after my release from the hospital, my arms returned to their normal size and after going back for blood tests, my creatine kinase levels returned to a normal level of 80, and thankfully no long term damage was inflicted on my kidneys.

This is an example of how Rhabdo can happen to anyone. I’m a healthy 20-year-old, and I exercise a fair amount – but if you are pushing yourself too far at the gym, then you could be putting your kidneys and in extreme cases, your life, at risk. 

This is by no means a scaremongering article telling you to not go to the gym. Rather, it is a cautionary tale telling you to give yourself a break now and again. Don’t push yourself beyond your limits, and always stay hydrated.

Lucie Phipps