Compartment syndrome develops once pressure inside the fascia that surrounds the muscles and bone increases without relief and can lead to the destruction of the nerve cells and capillaries inside.
This syndrome can develop in any of the compartments in the body but quite common in the lower leg. This can develop in an acute manner from an injury or other cause of abrupt swelling or in a chronic manner which results to overuse or other chronic swelling.
Acute compartment syndrome is considered as a medical emergency while chronic compartment syndrome can be managed using conservative measures. Remember that both conditions must be treated promptly in order to prevent lasting damage to the affected area as well as the neighboring regions.
Causes of compartment syndrome
Acute compartment syndrome is usually caused by trauma to the structures in the compartment. The following can cause the syndrome:
- Tearing of the muscle
- Bone fracture
- Crushing injury
- Swelling or bleeding after surgery
- Blockage of blood flow
- Use of anabolic steroids
- Drastic increase in the activity level
Chronic compartment syndrome is due to constant trauma and overuse which can be caused by the following:
- Running on hard surfaces
- Repetitive stress which results to intra-compartment pressure that does not return to normal during rest
- Use of taping, braces or wrapping that is too tight
- Muscle hypertrophy due to exercise
What are the signs and symptoms?
Pain is a symptom of compartment syndrome. The pain might be out of proportion for the injury particularly in cases where there is no fracture. Exercise can increase the pain and diminishes with rest. Swelling and tenderness are also present along with burning or tingling sensation.
After sustaining a blow to the area, the pain will start to turn dull with an increase of pressure in the muscle and increasing numbness. In addition, the muscles will weaken and become rigid.
When it comes to acute compartment syndrome, it is a medical emergency that must be treated by a doctor. It is managed with application of an ice pack, anti-inflammatory medications, immobilization and sports massage. In severe cases, surgery is required to heal the injury. The fascia is sliced open to allow the fluids to drain and relieve the pressure.
Chronic compartment syndrome typically responds to adequate rest from activities that caused the pain. Application of ice and elevation along with anti-inflammatory medications will help ease the swelling that causes the pressure. Sports massage will help stretch the fascia to accommodate any growth or swelling of the muscle.
Do not wrap the affected area since extra pressure will only worsen the issue. In severe cases in which the pressure remains elevated and does not respond to conservative treatment, surgery is the solution to reduce the pressure and prevent further damage.