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Definition

What is compartment syndrome?

Compartment syndrome is a serious condition occurring when there is a large amount of pressure inside a muscle compartment. Compartments are groups of muscle tissue, blood vessels, and nerves in your arms and legs surrounded by a very strong membrane called the fascia. Fascia does not expand, so swelling in a compartment can turn out an increase in pressure inside the compartment. This results in injury to the muscles, blood vessels, and nerves. The increase in pressure can cut off blood flow to the compartment and can result in cellular loss of oxygen going to the tissues (ischemia) and cellular death (necrosis).

How common is compartment syndrome?

The incidence of compartment syndrome varies depending on the inciting event. Compartment syndrome may underestimate the true incidence because the syndrome may go undetected in severely traumatized patients.

However, it can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of compartment syndrome?

Acute Compartment Syndrome

The most popular symptom of acute compartment syndrome is severe pain that doesn’t improve after keeping the injured area elevated or taking medication. Your leg or arm seems worse when you stretch it or use the injured muscle. Other symptoms may include a feeling of tightness in the muscle or a tingling or burning sensation in the skin around the affected area. Symptoms of advanced acute compartment syndrome can include numbness or paralysis. This is usually a sign of permanent damage.

Chronic Compartment Syndrome

Pain or cramping when you exercise is the most common sign of chronic compartment syndrome. After you stop exercising, the pain or cramping usually goes away within 30 minutes. If you continue to do the activity that’s causing this condition, the pain may start to last for longer periods.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Having trouble moving your foot, arm, or affected area
  • Numbness
  • A remarkable bulge in the affected muscle

When should I see my doctor?

If you have unusual pain, swelling, weakness, loss of sensation, or soreness related to exercise or sports activities, talk to your doctor immediately. Don’t try to exercise through the pain; that can lead to permanent muscle or nerve damage.

Sometimes chronic exertional compartment syndrome is mistaken for shin splints, a more common cause of leg pain in young people who do a lot of vigorous weight-bearing activity, such as running. If you think you have shin splints but they don’t get better with self-care, talk to your doctor.

Causes

What causes compartment syndrome?

It is found that compartment syndrome can increase when there’s bleeding or swelling within a compartment. This can lead to pressure to build up inside the compartment, which can stop blood flow. It can also engender permanent damage if left untreated, as the muscles and nerves won’t get the nutrients and oxygen they need. Not treating the condition may lead to amputation. 

The compartment syndrome is classified into two major types:

Acute Compartment Syndrome

This type of compartment syndrome typically occurs after you experience a major injury. In rare cases, it can also develop after a minor injury. For example, you may develop acute compartment syndrome:

  • Following a fracture
  • After an injury that crushes your arm or leg
  • As a result of a severely bruised muscle
  • From wearing a cast or tight bandage
  • From heavy drinking or drug use

Chronic (Exertional) Compartment Syndrome

Exercise, especially when it involves repetitive motion, can cause this form of compartment syndrome. It occurs most frequently in people under 40, but you can develop it at any age.

You’re more at risk for developing chronic compartment syndrome if you do activities such as swimming, playing tennis, or running. Intense or frequent workouts can also increase your risk.

The link between exercise and chronic compartment syndrome isn’t fully understood.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for compartment syndrome?

Some following factors are able to increase your risk of developing compartment syndrome, including:

Age

Although people of any age can develop compartment syndrome, the condition is most common in male and female athletes under 30.

Type of exercise

Repetitive impact activity — such as running or fast walking — increases your risk of developing the condition.

Overtraining

Working out too intensely or too frequently also can raise your risk of compartment syndrome.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is compartment syndrome diagnosed?

Your doctor will give you a physical exam to check for signs of acute or chronic compartment syndrome if he/she suspects that you are experiencing this condition. They may squeeze the injured area to determine the severity of your pain.

Your doctor may also use a pressure meter with a needle attached to measure how much pressure is in the compartment. This measurement needs to be taken while you are doing the activity that makes your leg or arm hurt. It will be taken again after you have finished.

Your doctor may take X-rays to rule out other conditions.

How is compartment syndrome treated?

Depending on the type of compartment syndrome that you have, the treatment will be determined by your doctor:

Acute Compartment Syndrome

Surgery is the only treatment option for this type of compartment syndrome. The process involves cutting open the fascia to reduce the pressure in the compartment. In some severe cases, your doctor will have to wait for the swelling to go down before closing the incision.

If you developed this condition because of a cast or tight bandage, the material will need to be removed or loosened.

Chronic Compartment Syndrome

Your doctor may suggest several nonsurgical treatment methods first, including:

  • Physical therapy to stretch the muscle
  • Anti-inflammatory medication
  • Changing the type of surface you exercise on
  • Performing low-impact activities as part of your exercise routine
  • Elevating the extremity
  • Resting after activity or modifying the activity
  • Icing the extremity after activity

If these treatments don’t work, you may need surgery. Surgery is generally more effective than nonsurgical methods for treating chronic compartment syndrome.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage compartment syndrome?

Following these useful tips will help you to reduce the risk of this condition:

  • Use athletic shoe inserts (orthotics) or wear better athletic shoes.
  • Limit your physical activities to those that don’t cause pain, especially focusing on low impact activities such as cycling or an elliptical trainer. For example, if running bothers your legs, try swimming. Or try running on softer surfaces.
  • Apply ice to the affected area after exercising.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Review Date: July 11, 2017 | Last Modified: July 11, 2017

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