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Patient education: Rhabdomyolysis (The Basics)
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Patient education: Rhabdomyolysis (The Basics)
Written by the doctors and editors at UpToDate
All topics are updated as new evidence becomes available and our peer review process is complete.
Literature review current through: Sep 2017. | This topic last updated: Jul 06, 2015.

What is rhabdomyolysis? — Rhabdomyolysis is when muscle tissue gets severely damaged and substances from inside the muscle cells leak out into the blood. This can lead to serious problems in the body, including:

Kidney damage – Normally, the kidneys filter the blood and remove waste and excess salt and water (figure 1). Severe kidney damage can lead to "acute kidney failure," which is when the kidneys stop working.

Not having the right amount of certain salts in the blood – The body needs the correct amount of certain salts (for example, potassium) to work normally. Having levels of these substances that are too high or too low can cause problems.

Rhabdomyolysis can be mild or severe. Severe rhabdomyolysis can be life-threatening.

What causes rhabdomyolysis? — Different things can cause muscle tissue to get damaged, including:

Muscle injury, for example, from surgery or getting hurt

Very intense exercise

Lying in the same position for a very long time, such as being in a coma

Some kinds of infections

Some kinds of medicines or poisons

Muscle problems that some people are born with

What are the symptoms of rhabdomyolysis? — Some people have no symptoms. They might find out they have it when their doctor does blood tests for another reason.

Other people have symptoms that include:

Muscle pain

Urine that is red or brown

Muscle weakness

Should I see a doctor or nurse? — Yes. Call your doctor or nurse if you have the above symptoms, especially after getting hurt or exercising very hard.

Is there a test for rhabdomyolysis? — Yes. Your doctor or nurse can do blood tests and urine tests to check for rhabdomyolysis and any problems it has caused.

How is rhabdomyolysis treated? — Treatment depends on what's causing your rhabdomyolysis and how severe your condition is. Most people are treated in the hospital.

Your doctor will treat the cause of your rhabdomyolysis, if it can be treated.

He or she will also treat any problems that the rhabdomyolysis has caused. Treating these problems usually involves:

Fluids that go into your vein through a tube called an "IV" – Fluids can help the body flush out the substances from the muscle cells.

Medicines to correct the salt levels in your body

Treatment to help until your kidneys work normally again – This can include medicines, diet changes, or "renal replacement therapy." Renal replacement therapy is a term for treatments that take over the job of the kidneys. It involves either:

Hemodialysis – Hemodialysis is a procedure in which a machine takes over the job of the kidneys. The machine pumps blood out of the body, filters it, and returns it to the body (figure 2). People have hemodialysis at least 3 times a week.

Peritoneal dialysis – Peritoneal dialysis is a procedure that people do at home every day. It involves piping a special fluid into the belly. This fluid collects waste and excess salt and water from the blood. Then the used fluid drains out of the belly (figure 3).

Some people with rhabdomyolysis have an abnormal build-up of pressure in a group of muscles. Although this is uncommon, it is an emergency. It usually needs to be treated with surgery to cut open the muscles and relieve the pressure.

More on this topic

Patient education: Acute kidney injury (The Basics)
Patient education: Blood in the urine (hematuria) in adults (The Basics)
Patient education: Hemodialysis (The Basics)
Patient education: Peritoneal dialysis (The Basics)
Patient education: Acute compartment syndrome (The Basics)

Patient education: Blood in the urine (hematuria) in adults (Beyond the Basics)

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All topics are updated as new information becomes available. Our peer review process typically takes one to six weeks depending on the issue.