What is Rhabdo?

A worker holds his leg in pain after a fall, a construction worker wipes sweat off his brow in the sun, and a woman lifts a heavy barbell at the gym.

Rhabdo can occur anytime muscle is damaged, whether it’s from an accident, heat, overuse, or other cause.

Rhabdo is the breakdown of damaged muscle which results in the release of muscle cell contents into the blood. The proteins and electrolytes released into the blood can cause organ damage. Rhabdo can occur anytime muscle is damaged or killed. In the workplace, risk factors can include heat exposure, physical exertion or overuse, and direct trauma (e.g., crush injury from a fall).

Potential Problems due to Rhabdo

Rhabdo can cause many problems, including:

  • Kidney damage or kidney failure
  • Dangerous heart rhythms (arrhythmias)
  • Seizures
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Permanent disability
  • Death 

Muscle damage can also cause a medical condition called compartment syndrome:

  • A compartment is a group of muscles that are bound together by a thin, fibrous sheath or covering.
  • If a muscle inside the sheath is injured and swells, the pressure inside the sheath can rise since the sheath cannot stretch very far.
  • High pressure inside the sheath can prevent blood from entering to feed the muscles inside.
  • When muscles inside the compartment aren’t getting enough blood, they die. This is called compartment syndrome.
  • While not common, if untreated or not treated quickly enough, compartment syndrome can lead to permanent disability as the body cannot replace dead muscle.

Many of these problems can be prevented with early recognition and treatment!

Worker outside drinking water.

Dehydration doesn’t cause rhabdo but dehydration can make it worse. Dehydration impairs the body’s ability to get rid of the muscle proteins and electrolytes that are released into the body when the muscle is damaged.

Page last reviewed: April 22, 2019