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Creatine kinase is an important enzyme needed for energy production and muscle function. Athletes have more of this enzyme in their blood, but so do obese and overweight people. High levels can tell us if there is muscle, heart, or brain damage. Keep reading to learn more about this enzyme, what it means if your levels are high or low, and how to increase or decrease your creatine kinase levels.
What is Creatine Kinase
Creatine kinase (CK), also known as creatine phosphokinase (CPK), is an enzyme that plays a role in energy production. Higher amounts of this enzyme are found in tissues that use a lot of energy, such as the muscles (including the heart) and the brain [R].
Creatine kinase will leak into the blood when these tissues are damaged. That’s why blood levels of this enzyme can tell us whether there has been tissue damage, i.e. a heart attack, stroke, sports injury [R, R].
If your creatine kinase levels are high, your doctor may order a creatine kinase isoenzyme tests to determine which type of creatine kinase enzyme is high (muscles: CK-MM, heart: CK-MB, brain: CK-BB) [R, R].
There is still no universally agreed upon range for creatine kinase. Different laboratories have different normal ranges, reported in U/L (units per liter) or ukat/L (microkatals per liter).
People who have greater muscle mass have higher CK levels. That is why men usually have higher CK values than women. The low normal limit for both men and women is approximately 20 – 30 U/L (0.34 – 0.51 ukat/L). The upper normal limit for men is anywhere from 200 to 395 U/L (3.4 – 6.8 ukat/L) and for women it’s up to 207 U/L (3.52 ukat/L) [R, R, R].
CK levels are around 70% higher in healthy African Americans, compared to people of European descent [R, R, R]. Some studies indicate that healthy black men and women can have significantly higher values than the currently recognized normal range(s) — up to 712 and 323 IU/L, respectively [R].
Low Creatine Kinase Levels
Causes of Low Creatine Kinase Levels
1) Low Muscle Mass
The most common cause of low creatine kinase levels is muscle wasting (muscle atrophy) due to physical inactivity, illnesses, or old age [R].
2) Inflammation in Autoimmune Disease
Creatine kinase levels are significantly reduced in autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis [R, R, R, R]. The more inflammation there is, the lower the creatine kinase levels can get.
Total creatine kinase levels are reduced in the second trimester of pregnancy. However, they increase in late pregnancy [R].
Health Effects of Low Creatine Kinase Levels
1) Low Creatine Kinase Levels are Linked to Fainting
The more creatine kinase a person has within the normal range, the better their heart and muscles can function. In a study of 442 people, people with low creatine kinase levels were 73% more likely to faint [R].
2) Low Creatine Kinase Levels Increase Risk of Death
Critically ill people who are weaker (with less muscle mass) have a higher risk of dying [R].
Because creatine kinase is a measure of muscle mass, it is not surprising that a link was found between low creatine kinase levels and higher mortality.
Ways to Increase Creatine Kinase
2) Creatine Supplements
High Creatine Kinase Levels
Elevated CK points to recent tissue damage. However, it doesn’t point to a cause or the location of the damage.
It is possible to be healthy and have higher CK levels.
Furthermore, a “falsely high CK” due to exercise is very common. In a large community study of over 12k people in Norway, people who had elevated CK levels were re-tested after 3 days of rest. CK levels returned back to normal in 70% of the cases [R].
To ascertain that the rise in CK is due solely to exercise or exclude exercise as a factor, the test should be repeated after a week of rest i.e. 7 days without exercise.
If elevated CK persists, it is likely due to an underlying health issue. People who have elevated creatine kinase due to an underlying health issue may experience the following symptoms [R]:
- Muscle weakness
- Muscle pain
- Inability to exercise (due to pain or weakness)
- Dark urine
Causes of High Creatine Kinase Levels
CK levels transiently increase to over 30 times the upper normal limit within 24 hours of strenuous physical activity and then slowly decline back to normal over the next 7 days. To what degree CK spikes depends on the type and duration of exercise [R, R, R, R].
Even stretching can increase CK [R].
Also, people who are untrained will experience greater spikes in CK levels due to greater muscle damage [R].
On the other hand, athletes have higher resting CK levels compared to non-athletes. A study of over 700 athletes suggests reference ranges for athletes that are over two times higher than normal ranges: 82–1083 U/L in men and 47–513 U/L in women [R].
Fun fact: the highest creatine kinase on record was over a million and was caused solely by a heavy workout [R].
2) Health Issues
Creatine kinase will increase with muscle, heart, or brain damage — these can be caused by an underlying disease or disorder:
- Muscle injuries, physical trauma, and burns [R, R, R, R, R]
- Genetic muscle diseases, such as muscular dystrophy (i.e Duchenne muscular dystrophy) [R, R]
- Infections by viruses, bacteria, fungi, or parasites, causing muscle wasting [R, R, R, R]
- Hormonal disorders, such as hypothyroidism, Addison’s disease, acromegaly (a disorder where the pituitary gland produces too much growth hormones), and Conn’s syndrome/hyperaldosteronism (a condition where too much aldosterone is produced in the adrenal glands) [R, R, R, R, R, R, R]
- Metabolic disturbances such as hyponatremia (low sodium), hypokalemia (low potassium), or hypophosphatemia (low phosphate) [R, R, R, R, R]
- Fever [R]
- Hypothermia [R]
- Diabetes; it causes muscle dysfunction (myopathy) [R]
- Some cases of autoimmune diseases when there is muscle involvement, such as lupus, rheumathoid arthritis, and celiac disease [R, R, R]
- Heart attacks [R, R, R]
- Head/brain injury [R, R, R]
- Seizures [R, R]
- Some cancers [R, R]
3) Medical Interventions
4) Drugs and Toxins
Some pharmaceutical drugs also have the potential to cause high CK:
- Statins, the cholesterol-lowering drugs [R, R]. In fact, muscle symptoms are the most frequent side effect of statin therapy [R].
- Fibrates, another group of drugs that decrease cholesterol [R, R]
- Beta-blockers and angiotensin II receptor blockers, used to decrease blood pressure [R, R, R]
- Glucocorticoids, used to decrease inflammation [R]
- Antipsychotics, such as clozapine (brand names: Clozaril, Leponex) and olanzapine (Zyprexa) [R]
- Antibiotics, such as daptomycin (Cubicin) [R]
- Hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), an anti-malarial [R, R]
- Antiretroviral medication, such as raltegravir (Isentress) [R, R]
- Isotretinoin, an (common brands include Myorisan, Amnesteem, and Claravis) [R]
- Colchicine (Colcrys, Mitigare) used to prevent gout [R]
- Chemotherapy drugs, such as 5-fluorouracil (Adrucil, Carac, Efudex) and levamisole (Ergamisol) [R]
Health Effects of High Creatine Kinase Level
1) High Creatine Kinase Levels Are Linked To Obesity
Although higher CK levels are found in athletes, conversely, high CK levels are also found in obese and overweight people.
In a study of 1444 subjects, higher CK levels were linked with higher BMI and waist-to-hip ratio [R].
In another study of over 10k adults, overweight and obese men had almost 2 times greater odds of having elevated CK [R].
Similarly, in 4,5k people, CK levels were higher in people with greater body mass [R].
These findings are explained by obese and overweight people having more fast-twitch (type II) muscle fibers and less slow-twitch (type I) muscle fibers. Fast-twitch muscle fibers have higher CK activity [R].
2) High Creatine Kinase Levels May Be Linked with High Blood Pressure
However, at least partially, this effect seems to be due to high CK being associated with higher BMI [R].
3) Higher Creatine Kinase May Be Linked to Lower Inflammation
The same association was found in 454 overweight and obese subjects [R].
4) High Creatine Kinase Levels May Prevent Blood Clotting
High plasma CK in the normal range may decrease the ability of our blood to clot properly. This is especially the case after exercise, when CK levels spike [R].
How to Reduce Creatine Kinase
1) Avoid Strenuous Exercise and Overtraining
2) Improve Muscle Recovery
After strenuous exercise, an increase in creatine kinase (muscle damage) can be attenuated by consuming enough carbs, protein, and antioxidants [R].
A small study with 14 men showed that sports massage 2h after exercise decrease CK levels [R].
A meta-analysis of 14 studies concluded that light therapy (low-level laser therapy and/or light-emitting diode therapy) had beneficial effects on decreasing CK levels after exercise [R].
3) Lose Weight If Overweight
The following supplements can help decrease muscle damage and corresponding spikes in CK levels:
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