Multiple Outbreaks of Rhabdomyolysis in University Sports

By Doyice Cotten

First, What is Rhabdomyolysis?

Rhabdomyolysis is a serious syndrome due to a direct or indirect muscle injury. It results from the death of muscle fibers and release of their contents into the bloodstream. This can lead to serious complications such as renal (kidney) failure. This means the kidneys cannot remove waste and concentrated urine.

What Causes Rhabdomyolysis?

Rhabdomyolysis is a potentially life-threatening syndrome resulting from the breakdown of skeletal muscle fibers with leakage of muscle contents into the circulation. The most common causes are crush injury, overexertion, alcohol abuse and certain medicines and toxic substances.


Rhabdomyolysis Occurrence in Athletics

Rhabdomyolysis (commonly called rhabdo) seems to have become a relatively common occurrence in university athletic programs. The following summaries relate a few recent incidents involving the disease among university athletes.

University of Houston

In February, 2019, a dozen athletes on the women’s soccer team suffered from the disease. Evidence seems to indicate that it has been associated with extreme workouts and systemic physical punishments.  An email stated that physical punishment will no longer be used. Head coach Diego Bocanegra has since been fired after an investigative report filed by Houston’s Channel 2, which uncovered a rash of rhabdo cases as a result of Bocanegra’s workouts and policies.

Texas Woman’s University

In 2018, eight Texas Woman’s University volleyball players were hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis. The team was undergoing two-a-day August workouts that included fitness testing, weightlifting, conditioning and pool stretches. The team coach resigned, but stated the resignation had nothing to do with the incident.

University of Nebraska

In 2018, two Nebraska football players were hospitalized after a workout. One was in the hospital three days and the other, two. They had performed a 32-minute weight training session. Coach Frost said he had used the drill at the University of Central Florida for two years.

 Ohio State University

In 2015, four members of the Ohio State University women’s lacrosse team were hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis, a condition sometimes associated with intense workouts in which muscle fibers break down and release a protein called myoglobin into the bloodstream, which potentially can harm the kidneys. The Head Team Physician for Ohio State’s athletics department reported that they had an intense workout, but that he did not “anticipate any significant long-term consequences.”

University of Iowa

In an older case (2011), thirteen University of Iowa football players got national headlines when they were hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis.  Apparently, at least one of the contributing causes was a squat drill in which players carrying 50% of their body weight performed squats; they then did a series of sled pushes. The coaches were cleared of any wrongdoing; however, the report recommended that the team eliminate an intense squat workout that may have contributed to the incidents.


This represents a quick search of rhabdo incidents, and is by no means meant to be a comprehensive search. However, this should put coaches on notice of one of the dangers in trying to get athletes in shape too quickly – as someone wrote, it is a case of “too much, too soon.”

Notice that all athletes can be susceptible to this dangerous (and sometimes deadly) disease regardless of the sport or of the sex of the athlete.

Photo Credit: Thanks to Franco Dal Molin via Flickr.