Last November, as I was heading home, Nia Roach- Duncan, a friend of mine, called and calmly informed me that she was being admitted to the hospital. Thinking that she was just pulling one of her usual pranks, I continued to question her about our weekend plans. I mean, rhabdomyolysis? She could at least have come up with a more believable name for her fake illness.
Except it was absolutely real, and she would end up spending a little more than a week in the hospital.
Roach-Duncan, a naturally skinny girl desiring to become a firefighter, decided it was best to start training in November in preparation for the January 2015 fire academy recruitments, so she would have the opportunity to develop strength and “bulk up.” She found a trainer and went to her first workout, where they went through a lengthy list of exercises.
“Looking back, we really did a lot of things that day,” said Roach-Duncan. “I didn’t stretch. I didn’t want to, and my trainer didn’t ask me to. When I told him my arms felt dead, he told me to press through it, so I did. After, when I called him about pain he told me to stretch it out.”
Over the next few days, she stretched as her pain levels increased, but when her urine changed color and her muscles started to feel tender and warm to the touch, she knew that something was wrong. Some research on the Internet revealed that it could be rhabdomyolysis, and against insistence from her mother that she was blowing it out of proportion and should just drink water and stretch, she went to the emergency room. After a few tests, the doctor on call told her that she had correctly diagnosed herself as having rhabdomyolysis.
“It’s a good thing that I went to the hospital because my urine cleared up on the way due to the water I drank. But there was still a problem. Had I waited, I might have thought everything was okay,” said Roach-Duncan. “Who knows what could have happened? I could have died.”
Rhabdomyolysis is an illness in which damaged skeletal muscle tissue breaks down and enters the bloodstream. Left untreated, toxins and proteins, namely myoglobin, can overwhelm the kidneys and lead to kidney failure and even death. Symptoms and warning signs include thirst, headaches, muscle redness, warmth and tenderness, limited range of motion and dark urine. Rhabdomyolysis typically targets larger groups of muscle such as the biceps and calf muscles, and anyone who exhibits these symptoms should contact their doctor immediately.
Program Director of Athletic Training Elizabeth Swann said that rhabdomyolysis can be caused by a number of reasons and factors, such as dehydration, poor nutrition and incorrect fitness techniques.
“Rhabdomyolysis is a rare condition, but unfortunately, it does happen,” said Swann. “People with the sickle cell trait and those who abuse creatine may be at a higher risk. Training correctly and consuming more protein instead of creatine is a better way to safely accomplish goals.”
Creatine is an acid that supplies energy to the body’s cells, especially muscle cells. It is a known additive in supplements and other products for muscle building, but some research has shown that the negative effects outweigh the benefits.
Swann stressed that students need to stay hydrated while working out and suggests drinking water instead of a sports drink during a shorter workout. Sports drinks should be saved for longer exercises, such as marathons, when the body would better welcome the electrolytes and hydration.
Although Roach-Duncan has been cleared to begin working out again, progress has been slow. She not only has to rebuild the muscle lost, but also gain additional muscle in order to perform in the Fire Academy, a goal that has unfortunately been postponed.
“I am thankful that I was able to overcome my illness, and in hindsight, I learned a few lessons from it,” said Roach-Duncan. “For example, before I didn’t understand the importance of stretching and staying hydrated. Now I do.”
Illnesses like rhabdomyolysis shouldn’t scare students into avoiding exercise, but simply warn them of what could happen if they don’t take the right precautions. The pursuit of a healthy lifestyle doesn’t have to turn into a nightmare. With proper nutrition, a healthy goal for your body and correct fitness techniques, pursuing health won’t make you sick.
Michaela is a sophomore communication studies and art major.