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Popular CrossFit workouts linked to disturbingly high rates of rhabdomyolysis, muscle cell 'explosion'

Saturday, October 05, 2013 by: Jonathan Benson, staff writer
Tags: CrossFit workout, rhabdomyolysis, muscle cell explosion

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(NaturalNews) It has become something of a running joke at many of the thousands of CrossFit gyms that now dot the urban American landscape. But the musculoskeletal deterioration disease known as rhabdomyolysis, despite the hilarity of its unofficial CrossFit cartoon mascot "Uncle Rhabdo," is no laughing matter, as it can lead to serious kidney damage and even death. And an increasing number of CrossFitters are apparently coming down with it as a result of too much exercise, according to new reports.

It often occurs when athletes over-exert themselves in the gym, performing an inordinate amount of repetitions at oftentimes unaccustomed weight levels for longer-than-normal periods of time -- basically all the standard protocols for CrossFit. And many CrossFitters, especially those that are new to the program, do not fully understand how these routines affect their bodies, or even how to distinguish between healthy muscle exertion and unhealthy muscle exhaustion.

This lack of knowledge combined with the pressures of achieving rapid results is often how rhabdo ends up manifesting, at least in the CrossFit setting. While performing their workouts in the high-heat, high-humidity environment of "the box" -- this is the name commonly attributed to the workout room of a typical CrossFit facility -- some athletes burn out their muscles so badly that muscle tissue actually degenerates and enters the bloodstream. Myoglobin, one of the most common byproducts of these stray muscle fibers, ends up clogging the kidneys and causing serious damage, the evidence of which can be seen in the form of brown urine.

"Rhabdomyolysis isn't a common condition, yet it's so commonly encountered in CrossFit that they have a cartoon about it, nonchalantly casting humor on something that should never happen," writes Eric Robertson, an assistant professor of physical therapy at Regis University, for The Huffington Post. "Under extreme conditions your muscle cells explode. They die. They leach protein out into the blood stream, including one form called myoglobin ... This can produce injury or death to all or part of the kidney in a short amount of time, and is potentially lethal."

Rhabdo is rare overall, but occurs more often in CrossFit

Just how rare is rhabdo? One study found that the overall annual incidence of the condition among athletes and people that exercise is a mere 0.06 percent, which is exceptionally low. This percentage is far higher for CrossFit, however, as the workout routine appears to be uniquely prone to causing muscle damage, a fact that CrossFit founder Greg Glassman openly admits.

"It can kill you," he is quoted as saying by The Huffington Post. "I've always been completely honest about that."

In its defense, many advocates of CrossFit, including many CrossFit coaches, say rhabdo is not really as problematic as some people think. While members are pushed to the limit and obviously encouraged to work hard, cases of rhabdo are still quite rare, they claim. On the flip side, some former CrossFit members say professional common sense is often thrown out the window due to an almost cult-like mentality that pervades the CrossFit culture.

"If you ask a CrossFit coach, the injuries were all my own fault," writes Jason Kessler, a former CrossFit member, in a recent article. "In a culture that drives you to go as hard and fast as possible, it's difficult not to get caught up in the hype. You're supposed to push yourself to the limit, but when you hit the limit and pay the price, you're the idiot who went too far."

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