Compartment syndrome is a painful condition caused by a buildup of swelling and pressure within a muscle compartment of the arm or leg. The pressure can disrupt blood flow and deprive muscles and nerves of oxygen and nutrients, essentially cutting off circulation.
Muscles in the forearm, lower leg, and other areas of the body, are contained in what are called muscle “compartments.” In the same way that oranges are divided into separate sections surrounded by fibrous sheaths, muscles and tissues are divided into distinct compartments and surrounded by a fibrous membrane called the fascia.
When an injury or activity causes the muscle to swell beyond capacity within the compartment, the pressure can become so high that it cuts off blood supply, causing severe pain, decreased range of motion, and permanent injury to the muscle and nerves.
Although most common in the lower leg and forearm, compartment syndrome may also occur in the hand, foot, thigh, buttocks, and upper arm.
There are two types of compartment syndrome:
- Acute compartment syndrome is usually caused by a serious injury, such as an arm or leg fracture sustained in a car accident. Acute compartment syndrome is a medical emergency and may cause permanent damage if left untreated.
- Chronic exertional compartment syndrome (CECS) is the more common form of compartment syndrome and is usually not a medical emergency. It is typically caused by regular, vigorous exercise and is primarily seen in athletes, particularly runners. The symptoms typically occur during exercise and disappear at rest.
The physicians at Lancaster Orthopedic Group can diagnose compartment syndrome and help determine an appropriate course of treatment.
Acute compartment syndrome requires immediate surgery (fasciotomy), which involves cutting the fascia and muscle to relieve pressure. Chronic compartment syndrome is most often treated with rest, physical therapy and a temporary break from the physical activity that caused the condition.