What Is Compartment Syndrome?

What Is Compartment Syndrome?Compartment syndrome is a serious medical condition that can develop after a traumatic or repetitive stress injury. It occurs when pressure builds up inside a confined space in the body, typically within a muscle compartment. This pressure restricts blood flow and deprives muscles and nerves of the vital oxygen and nutrients they need to function. Left untreated, compartment syndrome can lead to permanent tissue damage, muscle weakness, and even nerve death.

Penn Medicine reports that “Compartment syndrome is most common in the lower leg and forearm. It can also occur in the hand, foot, thigh, buttocks, and upper arm.” The NIH also notes, “The lower leg is the most frequent site of compartment syndrome and associated fasciotomy.” A fasciotomy is a surgical treatment for compartment syndrome, which we’ll talk about later.

Understanding compartments

Our bodies are compartmentalized. Muscles, nerves, and blood vessels are all bundled together and surrounded by a tough, fibrous membrane called fascia. This fascia acts like a sheath, holding everything in place and providing some structure. However, fascia is not very elastic.

There are several compartments throughout the body, most commonly in the legs, feet, arms, and forearms. The lower leg, for example, has four compartments that separate the various muscle groups.

Causes of compartment syndrome

There are two main types of compartment syndrome: acute and chronic.

Acute compartment syndrome typically develops rapidly, within hours of a significant injury. Common causes of acute compartment syndrome include:

  • Fractures: Broken bones, particularly those involving multiple fractures or fragments, can cause bleeding and swelling within a compartment.
  • Crush injuries: When a body part is crushed between two objects, significant swelling and bleeding can occur, leading to compartment syndrome.
  • Burns: Severe burns can cause fluid buildup and inflammation within a compartment.
  • Surgery: In rare cases, surgery can cause swelling that leads to compartment syndrome.

Chronic compartment syndrome develops gradually over time, often due to repetitive stress on a particular muscle group. It’s most commonly seen in athletes who participate in activities that involve repeated forceful movements of the legs or feet, such as running, jumping, or dancing.

What are the symptoms of compartment syndrome?

The characteristic symptom of compartment syndrome is pain. This pain is often described as:

  • Deep and aching
  • Throbbing or burning
  • Worsening with movement or pressure on the affected area
  • In some cases, the pain may be so severe that it becomes out of proportion to the visible injury.

Other potential symptoms include:

  • Tightness or cramping in the affected muscle compartment
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Weakness or difficulty moving the affected limb
  • Swelling of the compartment, although this may not always be present

How is compartment syndrome diagnosed?

Because early diagnosis and treatment are vital to your recovery, doctors often rely on a combination of clinical evaluations and tests to diagnose compartment syndrome. Here’s what a doctor should do:

  • Physical examination:Your doctor will feel the affected area for swelling, tenderness, and firmness. They may also assess the limb’s movement and sensation.
  • Compartment pressure measurement:This is the most definitive test for compartment syndrome. A thin needle is inserted into the compartment to measure the pressure within. A pressure exceeding a certain threshold suggests compartment syndrome. However, it’s important to note that a normal pressure reading doesn’t necessarily rule out the condition.

What is the treatment for compartment syndrome?

The primary treatment for compartment syndrome is surgery, known as a fasciotomy. During a fasciotomy, the surgeon makes an incision to relieve the pressure by splitting the fascia open. This allows the swelling to subside and restores blood flow to the affected tissues.

The specific procedure will vary depending on the location and severity of the compartment syndrome. In some cases, the fasciotomy may be temporary, and the fascia can be stitched back together later.

The Cleveland Clinic notes, “Chronic (exertional) compartment syndrome usually gets better and goes away if you rest your affected muscle compartments and avoid overusing them in the future.”

What are the complications of compartment syndrome?

If left untreated, compartment syndrome can lead to serious complications, including:

  • Muscle necrosis (tissue death): When blood flow is restricted for too long, muscle tissue can die, leading to permanent weakness and loss of function.
  • Nerve damage: Pressure can also damage nerves within the compartment, causing lasting numbness, tingling, and pain.
  • Rhabdomyolysis: This is a breakdown of muscle tissue that can release harmful substances into the bloodstream and damage the kidneys.

In severe cases, compartment syndrome can also increase the risk of infection and amputation.

Preventing compartment syndrome

Preventing compartment syndrome often depends on the cause. For example, wearing proper protective gear during work or activities that carry a risk of injury can help minimize the risk of fractures and crush injuries.

For athletes, proper training techniques, using appropriate footwear, and avoiding excessive training can help prevent chronic compartment syndrome.

Early recognition of symptoms and seeking prompt medical attention are critical in preventing long-term complications.

Recovering from compartment syndrome

Following surgery for compartment syndrome, patients typically undergo physical therapy to regain strength and function in the affected limb. Your recovery time can vary depending on the severity of the injury and the extent of tissue damage.

The Cleveland Clinic gives us this reminder: “Go to the emergency room if you’ve experienced a serious injury or notice extreme pain, swelling or numbness after surgery or while you’re wearing a splint or cast.”

At Cunningham & Mears, we understand serious injuries. We also know these injuries can be even worse when they are caused by someone else’s negligence. Our Oklahoma City personal injury attorneys will investigate the circumstances of your accident and determine all responsible parties. We are here to help you seek compensation for your injuries, losses, and pain and suffering. To schedule a free and confidential case review, call our office or submit our contact form today.