If a Tree Fell in a Forest...
When she came into the Emergency Department you can imagine her condition: she was disheveled, covered in feces, urine, and was mildly hypothermic. We examined her thoroughly from head to toe and discovered that, fortunately, she did not injure herself from the fall. Now it is bad enough to be severely malnourished, dehydrated, and cold (each of these topics could be their own essay), but the real and much more sinister threat to her health was what was occurring deep in her muscle tissues, blood, and kidneys. After cleaning her, changing her clothes, and giving her warm blankets, we inserted a catheter into her bladder to help her urinate. She was too week to walk to the bathroom. After the catheter was inserted we were surprised to see what came out - a thick viscous maple syrup-like sludge began oozing into the tubing. Her body had begun to break itself down. After lying on the ground for 5 days, Mrs. B had crushed her muscles under her own weight. Her muscle tissue began to disintegrate - flooding her blood stream with toxic levels of muscle by-products, and clogging her kidneys.
Rhabdomyolysis (Rhabdo for short) is the term for the breakdown of muscle tissue leading to acute renal failure, or the inability to produce urine. The main building blocks of muscle - creatinine kinase, and myoglobin flood the blood stream and literally clog the kidneys with sludge. This event most often occurs after crush-type injuries (such as lying on a hard floor for 5 days), strenuous exercise (yes, we have seen this condition in people who start a new exercise regimen), electrical burns, and ingestion of certain chemicals. Growing up in Colorado Springs near the Air Force Academy, my father would tell me stories of treating soldiers who would march 50-100 miles a day during basic training. Many would come to see him the day after with severe muscle pain and coca-cola colored urine. Excessive myoglobin from the muscle turns the urine a dark coke-like color. They called it March Myoglobinuria, another name for rhabdomyolysis.
The diagnosis of rhabdomyolysis can be made both clinically (by the history you obtain from the patient), and by laboratory analysis (checking blood levels of creatinine kinase, and the urine for myoglobin). A normal creatinine kinase level in an adult is 20-170 International Units/Liter of blood. Mrs. B’s level was 20,000! That is the highest level I have ever seen. Her urine was flooded with myoglobin accounting for its dark color. Her condition was no doubt worsened by her dehydration. When treating rhabdo, you want to protect the kidneys as much as possible. Anticipating such a condition, we immediately began giving her intravenous fluids. In order to help clear excess creatinine kinase and myoglobin from her blood stream we administered a drug called Sodium Bicarbonate. This drug is a very strong base, and helps to alkalinize the urine (make it more basic versus acidic), thus helping the kidneys to clear the toxins (who figured this stuff out?!).
After 3 liters of intravenous fluid, and Bicarbonate, Mrs. B’s urine began to lighten, and flow more freely. Surprisingly the rest of Mrs. B’s lab values were normal. We admitted her to the hospital for continued hydration, and physical therapy to help with building her strength. I am never ceased to be amazed at our ability to treat any person, with any type of condition, no matter how obscure, that comes into the Emergency Department and that we as humans have figured out how to treat it. What is more amazing is that for 5 days Mrs. B lay alone, cold, and in dire need of help and we had no idea.