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6th July, 20212 min read

What is rhabdomyolysis?

Medical reviewer:Dr Ann Nainan
Author:Dr Adiele Hoffman
Last reviewed: 08/07/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

What is rhabdomyolysis?

Rhabdomyolysis is a serious condition that happens when damaged muscle fibres break down and release certain substances, like potassium and proteins into your bloodstream.

This can lead to serious complications including kidney damage and heart problems. It can also be life-threatening, but early treatment can help prevent complications from happening.

What causes rhabdomyolysis?

Rhabdomyolysis can be caused by an injury, for example if part of your body is crushed, or if you don’t move for a long time after a fall.

Other causes include:

  • certain medications or recreational drugs, like cocaine
  • burns
  • over-exerting yourself
  • drinking too much alcohol
  • fits
  • certain infections
  • snake bites and insect stings
  • an underlying medical condition, like a thyroid problem or diabetes

What are the symptoms of rhabdomyolysis?

If you have rhabdomyolysis you’re likely to have muscle pain, although this pain can vary in how bad it is.

Some people have a lot of pain, while others have no pain at all.

Other symptoms you may have include:

  • finding it hard to move your arms or legs
  • peeing less or not at all – this pee may look dark
  • feeling unwell
  • a fever
  • feeling sick (nausea) or being sick (vomiting)
  • palpitations (heart beating faster than normal or missing beats)
  • tummy pain
  • a rash
  • feeling confused or agitated

How is rhabdomyolysis treated?

Rhabdomyolysis is a condition that needs emergency medical care, so go to an emergency department or call an ambulance if you think you have it.

Treatment for rhabdomyolysis may involve treating any complications as well as the cause of the muscle breakdown.

This treatment may include:

  • fluids – given directly into your vein to dilute the substances that have been released into your blood, help you pee and help your kidneys work
  • medication to reduce the amount of potassium in your blood and protect your heart
  • medications to help you pee – called diuretics
  • stopping any medication that might have caused your symptoms
  • dialysis to help your kidneys remove waste while they are recovering – this is less common
  • surgery to release pressure in your muscles – this is rarely done

If your rhabdomyolysis is caused by another medical problem or condition, your doctor will usually treat that.

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