Patient Education

To help you understand and navigate through your orthopedic health decisions, we have created a patient education section. Please select from one of the categories below to learn more about your condition or procedure.
Compartment Syndrome

Compartment syndrome is a painful condition that occurs when pressure builds up inside a muscle compartment, which can decrease blood flow and prevent oxygen and nutrients from reaching the muscles and nerves in that area.

Common Symptoms

The main symptoms of acute compartment syndrome include:

  • Severe pain that is greater than expected for the injury
  • Pain that increases with muscle stretching
  • Paresthesia (numbness, tingling or burning sensation)
  • Muscle tightness or fullness
  • Pale skin color in the affected area
  • Weakness or paralysis (late sign indicating permanent damage)

Chronic (exertional) compartment syndrome causes pain or cramping during exercise that subsides with rest. Additional symptoms may include numbness, difficulty moving the foot, and visible muscle bulging.

Cause & Anatomy

Acute compartment syndrome is usually caused by a severe injury like a fracture, crush injury, or badly bruised muscle. It can also occur after surgery or from overly tight casts/bandages. Chronic compartment syndrome is typically caused by repetitive exercise or activities that involve repeated muscle contractions, such as running, cycling, or swimming.

Compartments are groups of muscles, nerves, and blood vessels covered by a tough, non-stretchable membrane called the fascia. When swelling or bleeding occurs within a compartment, the increased pressure can compress blood vessels and nerves.

Diagnosis

For acute cases, doctors measure the compartment pressure using a needle or catheter. High pressures combined with symptoms confirm the diagnosis. For chronic cases, doctors measure compartment pressures before and after exercise. Pressures remaining high after exercise indicate chronic compartment syndrome.

Prevention

There are no definitive ways to prevent acute compartment syndrome from injuries. For chronic cases, avoiding overexertion, using proper technique, and allowing adequate rest can help prevent flare-ups.

Treatment

Acute compartment syndrome is a medical emergency requiring urgent surgical treatment called a fasciotomy to relieve the pressure by cutting open the fascia. Chronic cases may be treated with rest, physical therapy, orthotics, anti-inflammatory medications, or adjusting the frequency/intensity of activities.

Fasciotomy Surgery

A fasciotomy involves making incisions through the skin and fascia to allow the muscles to swell outward and relieve the built-up pressure.

Rehabilitation

After fasciotomy surgery, physical therapy is crucial to regain strength, range of motion, and function in the affected limb. Recovery can take up to a year before resuming intense physical activities.

FAQ’s

Can compartment syndrome be life-threatening?
Yes, acute compartment syndrome can lead to permanent muscle damage, disability or amputation if not treated promptly with surgery.

How quickly should acute compartment syndrome be treated?
Acute compartment syndrome requires emergency surgical treatment within a few hours to prevent permanent damage and complications.

Can compartment syndrome recur after treatment?
Chronic compartment syndrome may recur, especially if activity levels are increased too quickly after recovery. Following the recommended rehabilitation plan is important.

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