What is compartment syndrome?

Compartment syndrome is a painful condition that occurs when too much pressure is built up within and between muscles. It can damage muscles and nerves and lead to decreased blood flow. There are two types of compartment syndrome: acute and chronic.

Thick bands of tissue called fascia divide groups of muscles in the arms and legs. Within each fascia there is a compartment, or opening. The opening contains muscle tissue, nerves, and blood vessels. When swelling starts in the openings, it causes the fascia to push up against the muscles. The swelling can become so bad that blood flow is blocked and cannot reach the muscles, nerves, or blood vessels within the arms and legs, leading to permanent damage.

What causes compartment syndrome?

Acute compartment syndrome

Acute compartment syndrome typically causes immediate swelling and pain to the area.

  • Severe trauma such as a car crash
  • Fractures
  • A badly bruised muscle
  • Crush injuries
  • Steroid use
  • Bandaging or casting that is wrapped too tightly

Chronic compartment syndrome

Chronic compartment syndrome is caused by exercise and repetitive movements. The front of the lower leg is the most common area for the pain and swelling of chronic compartment syndrome to occur. It is commonly found in athletes who run a lot. It is also found among swimmers and cyclists and other athletes who repeat motions. The pain is usually relieved by discontinuing the exercise.

What are the symptoms of compartment syndrome?

Acute compartment syndrome symptoms include:

  • More pain than expected from an injury
  • Severe pain when the muscle is stretched
  • A tingling or burning feeling in the skin
  • A tight or full feeling in the muscle
  • Numbness or paralysis (This usually does not happen at the start)

Chronic compartment syndrome symptoms include:

  • Numbness
  • Visible muscle bulging
  • Pain
  • Tightness when palpating (feeling) the muscle