getting rhabdo from crossfit

Rhabdomyolysis: A Personal Rhabdo Story From Crossfit

“They thew me in an ambulance and took me to the hospital.” A personal experience about experiencing rhabdomyolysis from Crossfit. This story is from a fellow fitness enthusiast, Karla. Karla was nice enough to share her personal experience about rhabdomyolysis – what it was like and the aftermath that ensued. Some reader stories contain general advice about health and personal development. Others can be examples of how a YLB reader achieved success or failure. Want to submit your own reader story?

This is part four of our series of understanding rhabdomyolysis in athletes. First we covered the basics on what you, as someone who works out, needs to know about the causes of rhabdo and the complications of rhabdo. From there we went on to discuss rhabdomyolysis treatment and prevention and part three, some much needed guidance on returning to physical activity after rhabdomyolysis. This is a personal experience from a fitness enthsiast who suffered rhabdomyolysis after a Crossfit workout.

“They Threw Me In An Ambulance and Took Me To The Hospital”

getting rhabdo from crossfitMeet Karla. She is what most would consider a healthy young female. She currently belongs to Team FNH USA – a professional three gun competition team. Her other passions: Crossfit and Olympic weightlifting. Karla had the unfortunate experience of coming across rhabdmyolysis first hand shortly after joining Crossfit. For her the struggle (as for many people) was finding out what to do next after she got rhabdo. Here’s what her experience was like:

Were you new to Crossfit? What kind of shape did you consider yourself to be in before your specific workout?

I got rhabdo on my fourth day at Crossfit. I’ve always been pretty athletic – softball for nince years growing up; varsity soccer and basketball in high school; varsity tennis and intramurals in college; skiing, snowboarding, etc. The year before I started Crossfit, I had done a fair amount of running (on the order of three miles a day) as well as HIIT cardio training. Like most women, my lower body has always been stronger than my upper half. I wouldn’t necessarily have called myself a fantastic athlete, but I was far from being a couch potato.

What specific workout landed you in the hospital?

It was a chipper: fifty push presses with the bar; forty burpees; thirty calorie row; twenty wall balls; and ten pull-ups. Then as a special Christmas surprise, we cut it in half and did it again backwards, yay!

It was the combination of push press and burpees that did me in – high reps at light weight, targeting the weakest muscles in my body. But I was in decent shape before I came to Crossfit, so I never reached failure. I did the whole thing. It was a perfect storm, really. I was in good enough shape to do enough work to wreck myself, but in bad enough shape that doing all that work wrecked me.

I was not taking any supplements, and it was December, so it wasn’t a heat or dehydration thing. Just flat-out, too much work.

When did you know that something was wrong with your body and how much time did you spend in the hospital?

getting rhabdo from crossfit

Swelling to muscles involved is a common sign of rhabdomyolysis – note the swelling going down past the elbow.

I drove home that night holding the bottom of the steering wheel because I couldn’t lift my arms to hang on at ten and two. The next day, I was seriously sore, but thought I was just being a wimp and that it’d get better. The second day I woke up with my arms swollen like overfilled water balloons. I couldn’t lift them. I couldn’t bend them. And the pain only continued to increase.

By this point, I realized that I might have rhabdo, but I was lacking the key indicator – the blood in my urine – for nearly forty-eight hours after the workout. When the pink urine showed up, we went to the emergency room, where I finally broke down and cried because it hurt so much and the morphine wasn’t doing anything to help with the pain. Blood tests showed my cK was around 78,000 and my myoglobin was around 12,000. (So, you know — a really bad case of it).

“They threw me in an ambulance, and sent me over to the hospital.”

I spent the next five days with a wide-open IV trying to flush it all out. I am fortunate that my kidneys never failed; in fact, doctors told me afterwards that all of the indicators of normal kidney function never even showed any signs of stress during that time. I left the hospital after five days, with my cK still elevated at around 8,000. I lost 9 pounds, most of which was the muscle fibers that I peed out.

After your situation in the hospital was all over, how frustrating was it that there was literally not much information out there on what to do next when it comes to getting yourself physically back to where you were?

I had plenty of time in the hospital to search the internet for what to do about rhabdo. I found several articles about what to do in the immediate crisis, and a couple articles about people who had sued their gyms for giving them rhabdo. But nothing about what to do next. I was my gym’s first case of rhabdo, so it was new territory for all of us. It was certainly frustrating to feel like I was stumbling around in the dark the next several months as we tried to balance making forward progress in my recovery and fitness, with not doing something that would send me back to the hospital.

How did your doctors and your trainers develop your plan of getting your fitness level back to where it was (I’m assuming included frequent lab check ups and scaled workouts)? How long overall was it before you were able to get to your level of fitness again and how long before you could even do any physical activity?

Initially, I took an entire month off from any physical activity at the behest of my kidney doctor from the hospital. During this time, things such as getting dressed or even walking up the stairs were enough to send me to bed for a nap. I went back to my desk job after about ten days; the walk from the parking lot felt like a marathon and I think I only made it till about noon my first day before going home to sleep.

rhabdomyolysis from crossfit

Karla recently competing in a Crossfit WOD – fully recovered after her rhabdomyolysis experience.

After 30 days, I had my blood tested and was cleared to go back to the gym. The gym owners made it a point to be personally present whenever I worked out for most of the next six months, and they usually modified the WOD specifically for my needs. During this time, my gym owners sent me to their trusted sports medicine/osteopathic doctor. I’d get my cK tested every week; if my cK was in normal ranges, we’d either increase the intensity a tiny bit the next week, or add another workout in. So, my first week back, I did one workout, at a drastically reduced rep scheme. My cK was normal, so the next week, I did two WODs; still with drastically reduced reps and weights, and only about fifty percent effort. My cK was high that week, so we stayed there for another week. That next week, my cK was normal, so we upped the intensity to sixty percent or so. We continued this trend for several months, upping the intensity only if and when my cK was normal. At some point, we added a third WOD in for the week, still with reduced reps and effort and scaled back the blood tests from weekly to bi-weekly. After a couple months, I was allowed to do “Karla’s special rhabdo WOD” at maximum effort. Then I graduated to doing the gym’s “less than 3 months” scaled workout with the rest of the newbies. I got rhabdo at Christmas; it was the following July when my doctor finally told me I didn’t need to come back anymore.

“This whole time, I was exhausted. That long term fatigue that rhabdo patients talk about is no joke.”

So, a few key principles we followed during recovery: Slower and safer is better than the hospital. Listen to your body and rest as much as necessary, either by taking a day off, or by actually taking a nap. Workouts were never back-to-back days. We didn’t completely avoid triceps and shoulders, but definitely split up those reps, often by adding a two hundred meter run or row just to give my muscles a little more time to recover between sets. If I was tired or sore, I quit working out. We erred on the side of caution.

Two and a half years later, I attend my gym five times a week and complete most workouts at their prescription or higher. I’ve participated in about a dozen competitions, in which I’ve completed three WODs in a day or five WODs in a weekend, all without negative effects. After the initial six to seven months of caution, I haven’t exhibited any signs of reoccurrence.

You can read more about Karla and her adventures over at her blog, Guns and Barbells.

Reminder: This is a story from one of your fellow readers. Please be respectful!. It can be a bit nerve-wrecking to put your story out for others to read for the first time. Keep in mind that this guest isn’t a professional writer; just a person with a passion for healthy living like you. Negative comments on reader stories will be removed.

All photos credited to Karla and to Travis Dolan

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