Overview on compartment syndrome

Compartment syndrome is a sore and potentially serious ailment brought about by swelling or bleeding inside an enclosed muscle bundle or “compartment”.

In every muscle group in the legs and arms along with the adjacent nerves and blood vessels, it is contained in a space enclosed by tissue known as the fascia. The condition develops if the pressure inside a compartment rises that limits the flow of blood to the region and potentially damaging the muscles and neighboring nerves.

It generally affects the feet, legs, hands or arms but can also occur anywhere there is an enclosed compartment within the body.

compartment-syndrome

Significant pain particularly when the muscle is stretched which appears worse than what is expected for the injury.

What are the types of compartment syndrome?

The 2 main forms of compartment syndrome are acute and chronic.

Acute

  • Occurs abruptly, typically after a severe injury or fracture
  • This is considered as a medical emergency that necessitates immediate care
  • Can result to lasting muscle damage if not promptly treated

Chronic

  • Occurs in a gradual manner, usually during and right after repetitive activity such as cycling or running
  • Generally, it settles or subsides in minutes of stopping the activity
  • Does not cause any lasting damage

What are the indications?

Acute

The indications of the acute form generally develop after injuries and rapidly worsens. The usual indications include:

  • Significant pain particularly when the muscle is stretched which appears worse than what is expected for the injury
  • Muscle tightness
  • Tenderness in the affected area
  • Burning or tingling sensation
  • Numbness or weakness in severe cases

Chronic

The indications of chronic compartment syndrome are likely to develop in a gradual manner during activity and settles with rest. The usual indications include:

  • Cramp-like pain during exercises, mostly in the legs
  • Tingling sensation
  • Swelling or evident bulging of the muscle
  • Paleness and coldness of the affected area
  • Difficulty moving the affected area in severe cases

Management

For the acute form, treatment in a healthcare facility is necessary under a surgical procedure, specifically emergency fasciotomy. The doctor creates an incision to slice open the skin and fascia bordering the muscles to alleviate the pressure within the muscle compartment. The wound is sealed in a few days after. In some cases, a skin graft might be required to cover the wound.

As for the chronic form, it is not considered dangerous and can be alleviated by stopping the activity responsible for it and switching to a less strenuous activity. Orthotics, physiotherapy and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) might be given.

Quick Note / Disclaimer

The material posted on this page on compartment syndrome is for learning and educational purposes only. To learn to recognize and manage this condition, register for a first aid and CPR course with Kelowna First Aid.

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