What is Rhabdomyolysis?

Rhabdomyolysis can be described as a syndrome involving the breakdown of striated muscle, which causes myoglobin and other intracellular proteins and electrolytes to leak into the circulation.

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'The development of rhabdomyolysis is associated with a wide variety of disorders, including injuries, exercise, the use of certain medications, infection and exposure to various toxins.

Rhabdomyolysis represents a disease with potentially severe sequelae if it is not identified and treated expediently. Rhabdomyolysis accounts for approximately 8-15% of acute renal failure cases and it is associated with a mortality rate of 5%. Clinical presentation can vary from asymptomatic illness to fulminant and life-threatening condition with multiorgan system failure.

Historical aspects of rhabdomyolysis

The first historical description of rhabdomyolysis can be found in the Old Testament among Israelites after abundant consumption of quail during their exodus from Egypt. At this time, rhabdomyolysis was a result of intoxication by hemlock herbs, which were consumed by quails during their spring migration across the Mediterranean Sea. Indirect evidence corroborates that the mentioned biblical episode occurred during springtime.

In 1812, a physician in Napoleon's army described limb gangrene from rhabdomyolysis in carbon monoxide victims. German military medical literature referred to rhabdomyolysis as crush syndrome during World War I, and more detailed descriptions of the diseases ensued after the World War II and the Blitz of London in 1941.

The exact role of myoglobin in the development of rhabdomyolysis was first described in experimental studies that were conducted during the early 1940s. In 1959, Korein and his colleagues classified rhabdomyolysis into either exertional or non-exertional forms of the disease. Non-traumatic and non-exertional causes of rhabdomyolysis were recognized in the early 1970s and identified as a potential cause of acute renal failure.

Rhabdomyolysis - an easy overview


Due to a lack of formal clinical definitions, the incidence of rhabdomyolysis, as well as myopathic events in general, has been challenging to evaluate in clinical research. Still, it is estimated that more than 25,000 cases are reported annually in the United States alone, where it accounts for 7% of all cases of acute kidney injury.

Rhabdomyolysis and crush syndrome are commonly found as a result of natural disasters, particularly in areas often affected by earthquakes. In fact, crush syndrome develops in 30-50% of cases of traumatic rhabdomyolysis. Various organizations like the International Society of Nephrology have implemented specific measures to support local agencies in providing life-saving treatments for patients with rhabdomyolysis.

Rhabdomyolysis is more common in adults and often affects males at a greater extent than women. However, this condition can also occur in both infants and children with inherited myopathies and/or those with a variety of enzyme deficiencies that affect the metabolism of carbohydrates and/or lipids. Older patients with diabetes mellitus that are concurrently treated with statins and fibrates are also at an increased risk of developing rhabdomyolysis.

Management of the condition

In every case of suspected rhabdomyolysis, the most important treatment goal is to avoid acute kidney injury. Therefore, the management of this condition includes swift and aggressive fluid replacement with saline, correction of electrolyte abnormalities, elimination of the causative agents, as well as treatment and prevention of any complications that may ensue.

Additional adjunctive therapies may include alkalinization of the urine with sodium bicarbonate, diuretic therapy or a combination of both. However, the lack of large randomized control studies regarding the benefits of such treatments hampers the introduction of strong recommendations for or against the use of these therapies in the treatment of rhabdomyolysis.


The overall prognosis for rhabdomyolysis is favorable when treated with early and aggressive intravenous (IV) fluid replacement, usually with full recovery of renal function. Still, the mortality rate may be as high as 8%, irrespective of the cause of rhabdomyolysis. Therefore, all clinicians should be aware of the most common causes of this condition, as well as the most updated diagnosis and treatment options.


Further Reading

Last Updated: Mar 18, 2021

Dr. Tomislav Meštrović

Written by

Dr. Tomislav Meštrović

Dr. Tomislav Meštrović is a medical doctor (MD) with a Ph.D. in biomedical and health sciences, specialist in the field of clinical microbiology, and an Assistant Professor at Croatia's youngest university - University North. In addition to his interest in clinical, research and lecturing activities, his immense passion for medical writing and scientific communication goes back to his student days. He enjoys contributing back to the community. In his spare time, Tomislav is a movie buff and an avid traveler.


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