Compartment Syndrome

  • Medical Author:
    Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

    Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

  • Medical Editor: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

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Compartment Syndrome Symptoms

Symptoms of chronic compartment syndrome (exertional compartment syndrome) include aching or cramping in the affected muscle (buttock, thigh, or lower leg) within a half-hour of starting exercise. Symptoms usually go away with rest, and muscle function remains normal. Exertional compartment syndrome can feel like shin splints and be confused with that condition.

SOURCE:

WebMD Medical Reference

Compartment syndrome facts

  • Compartment syndrome describes increased pressure within a muscle compartment of the arm or leg. It is most often due to injury, such as fracture, that causes bleeding in a muscle, which then causes increased pressure in the muscle. This pressure increase causes nerve damage due to decreased blood supply.
  • Symptoms include severe pain, numbness, and decreased range of motion.
  • Surgery (fasciotomy) is the only treatment for acute compartment syndrome. The muscle compartment is cut open to allow muscle tissue to swell, decrease pressure and restore blood flow.
  • Complications may include muscle loss, amputation, infection, nerve damage, and kidney failure.
  • Prevention efforts include ice and elevation of the affected extremity.
  • Chronic compartment syndrome usually requires no treatment or surgery.

What is compartment syndrome?

Compartment syndrome is a condition that occurs when injury causes generalized painful swelling and increased pressure within a compartment to the point that blood cannot supply the muscles and nerves with oxygen and nutrients. Muscles in the forearm, lower leg and other body areas are surrounded by fibrous bands of tissues. This creates distinct compartments. The fibrous tissue is very inflexible and cannot stretch to accommodate the generalized swelling. If left untreated, muscles and nerves fail and may eventually die.

While most often occurring in the forearm and lower leg, compartment syndrome can rarely occur in other parts of the body that have muscles contained in compartments, including the hands and feet.

Compartment syndrome may occur acutely due to swelling that arises from injury, or it may be chronic because of exertion such as exercise.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/19/2015
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