What is Compartment Syndrome?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Compartment syndrome is a medical condition caused by a buildup of pressure in the legs, arms, hands, feet, or buttocks. These heavily-muscled areas are surrounded by fascia, a supportive tissue which is not very flexible. If pressure builds up in these compartments of muscle and fascia, it can cut off nerves and underlying muscle cells, causing widespread tissue death and other problems. Compartment syndrome requires medical treatment; without treatment, the patient may lose a limb or experience permanent damage.

An excessive amount of exercise can lead to compartment syndrome.
An excessive amount of exercise can lead to compartment syndrome.

In the case of acute compartment syndrome, the pressure has built to dangerous levels, and it must be relieved immediately. Acute compartment syndrome is often treated with surgical means; a surgeon will simply slice open the fascia and muscle to allow the pressure to escape, and then repair the site once the underlying cause of the pressure buildup has been addressed. Chronic compartment syndrome is a more mild form common in athletes, which can be treated with diet, rest, medication, and variations in an exercise schedule.

If pressure builds up in compartments of muscle and fascia, it can cut off nerves and underlying muscle cells, causing widespread tissue death and other problems.
If pressure builds up in compartments of muscle and fascia, it can cut off nerves and underlying muscle cells, causing widespread tissue death and other problems.

Bleeding in the muscle, severe injuries, crush injuries, high levels of compression, burns, and excessive exercise can all lead to compartment syndrome. The symptoms usually include an extremely high level of pain accompanied with a burning or tingling sensation, along with loss of sensitivity and movement. Someone with compartment syndrome may experience agonizing pain in the muscle which seems totally out of proportion to the injury involved.

Compartment syndrome may be caused by a buildup of pressure in the buttocks.
Compartment syndrome may be caused by a buildup of pressure in the buttocks.

The longer the blood supply to nerves and muscle tissue is interrupted, the more dangerous the long-term effects of compartment syndrome can be. In a case where acute compartment syndrome is suspected, the patient should be rushed to the nearest hospital, and garments and other constrictions around the site should be removed. If a patient is wearing a cast or brace, medical personnel will need to remove it to treat the problem.

Severe burns are one of the most common causes of acute compartment syndrome.
Severe burns are one of the most common causes of acute compartment syndrome.

In patients with chronic compartment syndrome, care should be taken to ensure that the condition does not grow worse. It is a good idea to keep a close eye on the limb which is prone to pain, numbness, and tingling, and to consult a doctor if the problem appears to get worse. Chronic compartment syndrome is typically treated with anti-inflammatory drugs and scheduled rest so that it is not allowed to develop into full-blown acute compartment syndrome.

Surgery may be necessary to treat nerve damage.
Surgery may be necessary to treat nerve damage.
If a person with compartment syndrome is wearing a brace, medical personnel may need to remove it to treat the problem.
If a person with compartment syndrome is wearing a brace, medical personnel may need to remove it to treat the problem.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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