Compartment syndrome is a painful and potentially dangerous condiiton, which consists of swelling or bleeding within the muscle compartment, which consists of groupings of muscles, blood vessels and nerves located in the arms and legs. Pressure can build up within the muscle, which in turn can restrict bloodflow. This can prevent oxygen from reaching the nerves and muscles.
There are two distinct types of compartment syndrome - acute and chronic. Acute compartment syndrome occurs suddenly, usually after an injury and requires emergency management. If left untreated, the condition can lead to permanent damage of the muscle and nearby nerves. Chronic compartment syndrome takes place gradually due to too much stress on the muscle as a result of excessive exertion and usually passes after a few minutes of stopping the exercise. The latter is common among athletes, especially those involved in endurance sports. Chronic compartment syndrome is usually not a medical emergency and does not cause permanent strain.
Compartment syndrome has the following characteristic symptoms:
- intense pain or tenderness in the affected area
- swelling of the area
- hardened muscle which is painful when pressure is applied
- a sensation of tingling or burning
- weakness, numbness or difficulty moving affected body part (particularly after acute damage)
- Paleness or coldness of the area
Acute compartment syndrome usually occurs following an injury such as leg bone fracture, muscle tear, muscle compression or vein thrombosis. It can also be caused by a bandage or a cast that is too tight. Chronic compartment syndrome mainly affects athletes who overwork their muscles (running, walking ...) or develop them too quickly (intense bodybuilding).
There is no specialized medication for compartment syndrome. However, painkillers or ice can be used to ease the pain. The treatment of acute compartment syndrome involves an intervention called endoscopic fasciotomy. This is an opening of the fascia to relieve the pressure. The muscle is then closed once it is back to a normal size. The procedure must take place urgently, because beyond four hours the muscle can become infected and may require amputation. It is important to seek emergency help in cases of acute compartment syndrome.
In cases of chronic compartment syndrome, it is recommended to stop all sports activity and resume gently once the pain has passed. In cases where you're unsure, it is important to get in touch with your GP if you think you have chronic compartment syndrome.