13 football players ill after workout: The culprit? Rhabdomyolysis


Rhabdomyolysis triggered by too much exercise is thought to be rare. But the diagnosis of 13 cases of rhabdomyolysis among University of Iowa football players in January has shaken the world of sports training and taught coaches and trainers that the illness can arise out of “normal” high-intensity workouts.

In a report released Wednesday, independent experts who reviewed the Iowa case confirmed that the 13 players, all of whom recovered after several days of hospital care, became ill due to overexertion. In this type of rhabdomyolysis, muscle tissue is so overworked it breaks down and floods the bloodstream with a protein that can impair kidney function.

The report concludes that the players’ illnesses were caused solely by overexertion and that neither illicit drugs nor supplements played a part in the illnesses. The players were returning from a winter break and endured an “ambitious” workout, which made created the conditions for the illness to occur. A squat exercise was cited as the exercise that likely pushed the players’ muscles over the edge. The athletic staff was not faulted for the workout regimen, but the report noted that the staff was poorly trained in understanding and preventing rhabdomyolysis.


That could be said of a great many sports trainers around the country, according to experts interviewed by the Los Angeles Times.

“We have learned a little bit more about rhabdo,” Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz said at a news conference in Iowa City. “Quite frankly, I don’t think anybody in this building knew much about it prior to this occurrence. We’ve learned a little bit more about that, but I still think there’s a lot to be learned from what I know.”

Iowa officials said they remained baffled as to why some players became ill and others didn’t when everyone performed the same workout. But research by Priscilla M. Clarkson, a University of Massachusetts kinesiologist, suggests that genetic characteristics may make some people more susceptible to the condition. Clarkson’s research is focusing on ways to identify who might be more vulnerable.

Related: A growing danger for athletes

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