If you love working hard in the gym, chances are you’ve had your share of strains and pains. But have you ever imagined that your workout might land you with a $30,000 hospital bill? It’s hard to believe, but a quick Google search turns up story after story after story about an intense workout that led to hospitalization for exertional rhabdomyolysis, a condition that puts our kidneys at risk of severe damage.
Also called exercise-induced acute kidney injury, it happens when we really, really overdo it while exercising—like when a teen who was new to working out pushed himself through a 90-minute arm workout or when the Iowa football team’s training protocol went from “intense” to “insane.”
Normally, exercise causes tiny micro-tears in our muscles. Afterward, our body repairs them and we get stronger. The tearing releases a protein called myoglobin into our bloodstream, where it flows to the kidneys and is filtered into our urine. If we have too much micro-tearing at once, the amount of myoglobin that needs filtering can overwhelm and damage our kidneys.
This turns normal workout soreness into the stuff of nightmares. Rhabdomyolysis patients suffer through muscle pain, weakness and sometimes significant swelling in the damaged muscles. Then there’s the hospital stay—nine days, in one woman’s case—not to mention the hospital bill. After that, there’s at least a month of no exercise allowed before recovery can begin.
It’s scary stuff, not least because there aren’t obvious warning signs. It’s not always clear when someone has entered the danger zone, and the threshold for overdoing it is different for everyone. Thankfully, we can take steps to reduce our risk and improve our chances of being able to work hard over the long haul.