Scraping your legs on the front of a plyo box or pulling a muscle on the treadmill is one thing, but some of the things that happen to people who are just trying to get fit can blow your mind.
In 2006, weightlifter "Big" Brian Bach loaded up the squat rack, started his set, then collapsed to the ground. His femur had broken in one leg and his tibia and fibula in the other leg.
In 2014, CrossFitter Kevin Ogar was performing a barbell snatch during a competition. He started to bail on the lift, dropping the bar behind him. It bounced off the rack before hitting him in the spine, paralyzing him.
Okay, these are extreme—and extremely rare—examples of just how wrong things can go when you’re trying to get fit. But nasty, unexpected things can and do happen when people are working out, whether they’re going deep into the iron or just exploring new places on a bike.
But you can do more than just cross your fingers and hope it never happens to you. Let these stories from ER doctors motivate you to take safety seriously, no matter what kind of exercise you're doing.
A Bad Break While Leg Pressing
Picture this: A fit and healthy guy in his mid-30s loads up a leg press machine, lies back, releases the safety, and starts doing single-leg leg presses. Part way through one of his repetitions, his tibia snaps in half, and the full force of the weight falls on him.
Kevin Plancher, MD, a leading orthopaedic surgeon, sports medicine specialist, and founder of the Orthopaedic Foundation, recounts his treatment of this unfortunate lifter.
"This was a very complex fracture with a long, long crack all the way up the tibia to the knee joint," he explains. "We needed to work fast to place an intramedullary rod and a plat to stabilize his leg."
Plancher said there was no way to know exactly what caused the fracture. It's possible the patient simply placed too much weight on the bone and it wasn't able to hold up under pressure, but since he was also a runner and tennis player, he might have had a pre-existing injury or stress fracture that contributed to this devastating fracture.
"This is why I'm an advocate for always getting a preventative exam before starting or changing a workout routine, even if you're fit and healthy," Plancher says. "When my 17-year-old daughter told me she wanted to run a marathon, I sent her to a physical therapist who specialized in marathon training to analyze her gait. He found she was right-side dominant and gave her a program to develop her left side to help prevent potential injuries. Everyone could benefit from this type of pre-training work up."
Treadmill Accident from Hell
Treadmills tend to be one of the most dangerous pieces of equipment in the gym. One misstep or distraction can send you flying off the back of the machine, or falling onto the moving belt, ensuring a nasty burn. And you don't have to be running at a fast clip to end up with a gruesome injury. Plancher tells another story about a fit, healthy, 50-year-old patient whose basic treadmill walk went horribly wrong.
"She wasn't new to the gym and there wasn't a defect in the treadmill," he recalls. "Basically, she just lost her footing and caught herself wrong, landing with all her weight on her shoulder, completely shattering the top of her humerus. The ball that fits in the ball-and-socket joint of her shoulder was in so many pieces, we couldn't put it back together and had to use a prosthesis to repair the injury."
It was just an unfortunate accident, but Plancher says injuries like these can be avoided by always paying attention (put your cellphone away!), wearing good footwear, and choosing an appropriate speed. Also, be sure to keep your kids away from treadmills. I've personally seen young children get third-degree burns after touching a moving treadmill belt.
A Fully Ruptured Quad
Plancher's final story involves a young woman in her 20s who was relatively new to the gym. She was deadlifting without great form and pushing herself a little too hard. She lost her balance and ruptured her quadriceps, completely tearing the soft tissue.
"This really underscores the need for professional instruction and supervision," Plancher says. "Caution is better than being cavalier."
It's also a reminder that just because you think your form is correct, doesn't mean it actually is. Whether you're new to the gym or a regular, stay focused, use a spotter, keep the weight light when learning new skills, and elicit feedback on your form.
A Brutal Bike Accident
You've probably seen a few scary bike crashes, especially during races where one cyclist goes down, then takes half of the peloton with them. Most people don't worry too much about saddling up for a day of fun riding, but as soon as you get on a bike, all bets are off. Ted Forrest, MD, an ER doctor with Southern Emergency Medical Specialists, has seen a couple such "bad falls."
"One was a complex knee fracture," Forrest says. "A guy was in town on a family vacation, riding in an underground bike park that includes jump lines, pump tracks, dual slalom, BMX, cross country, and single-track—all in a former limestone cavern 100 feet below the surface. He jumped one of the hills, and landed on his knee when he came down."
The fracture was so bad that Forrest consulted with multiple orthopaedic surgeons before agreeing the patient needed to be transferred to a Level 1 trauma center—where the worst cases are treated—for further treatment and care.
A Bout with Rhabdo
Rhabdomyolysis has been in the news a lot lately. This is a rare condition in which muscle tissue is so damaged that its breakdown releases high levels of myoglobin into the blood, which can lead to kidney damage. Left unchecked, "rhabdo" can be fatal. Luckily, the extreme pain and muscle weakness that comes with rhabdo usually lands people in the ER, where doctors can stop the progression of the disease.
Meredith Williams, MD, another ER doctor with Southern Emergency Medical Specialists, treated one such patient.
"She was in her 20s and had done CrossFit to the point of putting herself in rhabdo with a creatine kinase level in the 2,000s and an arm massively swollen," says Williams. "She had to be admitted right away."
Williams wasn't sure exactly which CrossFit routine the woman was doing that led to the condition, but any extreme, new stressor can lead to rhabdo, especially if you're not listening to your body. And surprisingly, spin classes are a major culprit. Even if you're a strong athlete, always go light the first time you try something new.
- Brogan, M., Ledesma, R., Coffino, A., & Chander, P. (2017). Freebie rhabdomyolysis: a public health concern. Spin class-induced rhabdomyolysis. The American Journal of Medicine, 130(4), 484-487.