New resources help firefighters recognize signs of rhabdomyolysis: NIOSH

Illness leads to breakdown of muscle tissue, causes heart and kidney damage

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the U.S., firefighting places firefighters at increased risk for rhabdomyolysis (often referred to as rhabdo) due to the nature of their job and the environments they work in.

Rhabdo is a breakdown of muscle tissue, leading to a release of electrolytes and proteins into the blood stream, which can cause heart and kidney damage. If this occupational disease is left untreated, then it could result in a permanent disability or worse – death. 

NIOSH says that heat exposure and intense physical effort are two of the many known risk factors for rhabdo, which are conditions firefighters constantly work with. 

What are symptoms of the illness? Symptoms may include: muscle cramps, aches or severe pains; exercise intolerance (being unable to complete a usual workout routine); weakness; and abnormally dark (tea- or cola-coloured) urine.

But, symptoms may not appear for up to several days after a firefighter was in their role, physically active or exposed to heat. It's important to exercise caution because signs of rhabdo are comparable to heat cramps and dehydration. To confirm rhabdo is the cause of illness, it's key to have a health-care provider draw blood to check for creatine kinase, an enzyme inside of muscle tissue that's released when muscle is injured or dies. Early diagnosis is essential because the sooner treatment could begin, the chances of recovery without any lasting effects is improved. 

In order to keep firefighters informed, the institute has developed two sets of fact sheets. One is for structural firefighters and the other is for wildland firefighters – and of course, for their health-care providers too. The goal is to increase awareness about the symptoms of rhabdo to help firefighters recognize the signs to get early treatment, which would prevent additional serious medical problems.

Factsheets created by NIOSH on rhabdomyolysis could be found online for free.