A 23-Year-Old Almost Lost Her Leg After Attending a Spin Class

And now she’s sharing her journey on social media to bring attention to the life-threatening condition called rhabdomyolysis. 

Photo: Adobe Stock

Kaelyn Franco attended her first spin class on September 15 — and it nearly cost her her leg or, worse, her life.

When Franco, 23, got off the bike at the end of the 45-minute class, her legs immediately buckled. "I thought that was strange at first, but then I was like maybe it's just my muscles are tired, weak, and just a little bit sore," the Massachusetts resident told TODAY. And being that Franco is, in her words, "someone who played sports all [her] life," both she and her cousins (with whom she attended the workout) thought nothing of it.

But by the following evening, Franco found herself nearly crying in pain. She struggled to walk and bend her now very swollen legs, and her urine was dark brown in color. It became clear that something was very wrong. So she went to the hospital, where tests showed that her levels of creatine kinase, an enzyme that increases when there's muscle damage present in the body, were wildly elevated. "At my highest my CK levels were 259,000 (the normal range is between 33-211 U/L). Doctors said they hadn't seen such levels before," she wrote in an Instagram post detailing her experience.

Franco's diagnosis? Rhabdomyolysis (often called "rhabdo") is a potentially life-threatening medical condition that occurs when damaged muscle tissue starts to break down, sending its contents into the bloodstream, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More specifically, as muscles break down, they release a protein called myoglobin and the aforementioned creatine kinase enzyme into the bloodstream (thus, why Franco's levels were so high), which can manifest as symptoms such as muscle pain (way more than your typical post-leg day ache), muscle weakness (barely being able to move your limbs), and dark-colored urine — all of which require immediate medical attention.

The kidneys are responsible for removing this myoglobin from the blood and flushing it out via urine, but in large quantities, myoglobin can damage the kidneys. That's part of why rhabdo can also lead to serious health complications including (but not limited to) kidney damage or failure, seizures, permanent disability, or even death. And in some cases — such as Franco's — it can cause acute compartment syndrome, a painful condition wherein pressure within muscles (brought on by swelling) builds to dangerous levels that can cause nerves, veins, and arteries in the area to die, Denise Pate, M.D., a physician at the Medical Offices of Manhattan and a certified spin instructor, previously told Shape. And this may result in permanent and extensive muscle damage.

As Franco's experience suggests, rhabdo is often caused by excessive physical exertion, such as pushing your body too far during an unfamiliar workout. In addition to exertional rhabdo — when muscle breakdown is caused by strenuous exercise — dehydration or exercising in a hot, humid environment can also play a role. The condition can also be brought on by trauma, drugs, genetic muscle diseases, or seizures, according to the National Institutes of Health. "I think it has a lot to do with how conditioned the person is," Dr. Pate previously explained. "Frequently, in rhabdo cases, you're seeing people who are exercising hardcore for the first time, initially starting exercise, or starting a new type of exercise." (See these warning signs that you're pushing yourself too hard in the gym.)

"My rhabdomyolysis turned into acute compartment syndrome," Franco wrote on Instagram. "I had to get emergency surgery to save my leg and my life." While she didn't specify in her post, it's likely that Franco had to undergo a fasciotomy, which, according to the Cleveland Clinic, is the typical treatment for acute compartment syndrome. This procedure involves cutting through the skin and fascia (essentially the webbing that keeps everything in place below the skin's surface) to relieve the pressure causing the condition in the first place.

Following the operation, a doctor told Franco that without the surgery, "you could have lost your leg...you could have also lost your life," she explained to TODAY.

And while they're not wrong — rhabdo can, in fact, be life-threatening — early detection and treatment of the condition are essential to preventing not only fatal outcomes but also lasting effects. Unfortunately for Franco, she shared that her "leg will never be the same and [she'll] have lifelong complications from this."

Now, nearly two months later, Franco still can't walk without crutches or lift and put pressure on her leg. And because this means she's not able to drive, she's still home-bound. But she's "ready and hopeful for the day [she] can move again." In the meantime, however, she's recovering, raising money on GoFundMe for her medical bills, and sharing her rhabdo journey on social media "to help others."

Franco's story may make you wonder if it's unsafe to hit up a SoulCycle class or push yourself on your Peloton, but rest assured: Rhabdo is fairly uncommon, and listening to your body and ensuring that you're probably hydrated can help ward off the condition.

"I don't want this to take away from my passion of being fit and active, but I want [to] take it as a lesson and change some things going forward," Franco told TODAY. "I definitely want to be kinder to my body."

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