The rare condition that sent two Husker football players to the hospital last week after offseason workouts doesn’t just hit collegiate athletes.
It can strike weekend warriors, high school athletes or anyone who suddenly tackles an intense fitness routine they aren’t prepared for, doctors say.
The condition rhabdomyolysis can be dangerous. It results from the death of muscle fibers that leak into the bloodstream and can cause kidney problems, including kidney failure.
Dr. Sean Mullendore, a primary care sports medicine specialist with CHI Health, said that in the past 12 years he’s seen a half-dozen patients develop the condition, commonly known as rhabdo, and several have required hospitalization.
But the risks are minimal for everyday athletes, he said, as long as they are smart, especially when starting a fitness routine or resuming one after a break. The key is to gradually build into a training program.
One of Mullendore’s cases involved a middle-aged, out-of-shape man who jumped into two days of intense cardio workouts, then mowed his lawn and his neighbor’s on a hot summer day.
The Omaha-area man soon developed such severe pain in his thighs and stomach that he could barely stand, Mullendore said. He made a full recovery, after spending a few days in the hospital.
Mullendore said another patient required kidney dialysis after developing the condition. That patient was a college freshman and soccer player who suddenly added an intense weightlifting routine to his fitness program, which sparked the condition.
Along with kidney dialysis, hospital treatment also can include pain medicine, intravenous fluids and sometimes surgery.
Symptoms include muscle pain, inability to move arms and legs, dark red or brown urine, and in some cases, kidney failure. The condition can also be triggered by such things as genetic muscle diseases and trauma, such as an auto accident.
The two Husker football players, sophomore receiver Tyjon Lindsey and senior defensive lineman Dylan Owen, were admitted to a Lincoln hospital. Lindsey was in the hospital for three days, Owen for two. Both are back with the team, coach Scott Frost told The World-Herald earlier this week.
Frost said that the “workout that got them in trouble was a 32- to 36-minute weight workout. All they were doing is lifting.”
In a statement to The World-Herald earlier this week, Athletic Director Bill Moos said: “I have total faith and trust in Scott Frost as well as his staff. One of the things that impressed me most during our discussions surrounding Scott’s hiring was his total commitment to the safety and well-being of his players.”
Frost said there were trainers in the weight room to monitor athletes and pull them out if they were struggling.
Dr. Randy Eichner, a California-based member of the American College of Sports Medicine who is not involved in the Nebraska case, said weightlifting can trigger the condition.
By lifting weights, you’re causing small amounts of muscle damage, or micro tears, he said. When the weightlifting is at a proper pace and intensity, the body has time to repair those tears and the muscles become stronger and bigger. But if the weightlifting is taken to an extreme, the muscle damage can be much greater, which can trigger the condition, he said.
He said that among college football players the condition is more common during the offseason. He also said the condition tends to occur when an athlete is starting a new fitness program or resuming workouts after some type of break, such as following an injury, illness or summer vacation.
Eichner said sometimes coaches are to blame if they don’t supervise athletes properly or they push them to extremes.
There have been cases nationally involving not just football players, he said, but also college swimmers, softball and lacrosse players and track athletes.
Former UNO wrestler Jacob Marrs said he developed the condition in summer 2008 while a member of the team.
He said he took a break from his workouts, then jumped into a day of intense pull-ups followed by a day of intense push-ups. A few days later, he said, he developed such severe pain in his arms that he had trouble sleeping.
“I would wake up almost in tears,” he said.
He first went to an urgent care clinic and eventually was diagnosed with rhabdo and hospitalized in Omaha.
“I should have kept myself in better shape,” said Marrs, who now lives in Kansas. “That’s what it boils down to. I don’t blame anybody but myself.”
Fully recovered, he continued his wrestling career .
Dave Ahlers, assistant athletic director for communications at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said the school’s trainers and strength and conditioning staff work with athletes to prevent the condition from occurring.
Bret Carter, owner of local gym Omaha Barbell and who is familiar with the condition, said people put themselves at risk for the condition when they try to outdo the person working out next to them.
“You can get into an ego contest,” he said. “You keep going and going.”
Tom Buehler, an athletic trainer with CHI Health, said even people who are in good shape need to be careful about starting an intense workout routine that’s different from what they’re used to, such as a runner who jumps into intense weight lifting.
Eichner said the rhabdo condition has common denominators.
“It’s too much, too soon, too fast,” he said.