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Compartment syndrome

5-minute read

Acute compartment syndrome is a medical emergency. Call triple zero (000) or go to your hospital emergency department immediately if you’ve experienced a severe injury and think you might have acute compartment syndrome.

Key facts

  • Compartment syndrome is a painful syndrome caused by dangerously high pressure build up in a group of muscles.
  • The high pressure can decrease blood flow, preventing nourishment and oxygen from reaching nerve and muscle cells.
  • Acute compartment syndrome is a medical emergency that needs urgent surgery.
  • Chronic compartment syndrome occurs after repetitive exercise and usually improves with rest.

What is compartment syndrome?

Compartment syndrome is a painful condition caused by high pressure in a group of muscles (a muscle compartment), most commonly in the leg. High pressure can be caused by bleeding or swelling. When pressure reaches dangerous levels, it reduces blood flow, oxygen and nourishment to nerves and cells.

What is a compartment?

A compartment is a group of muscles enclosed in a tough sheath called fascia keeping the muscles together.

The sheath does not stretch easily, so if there is a build-up of blood or fluid inside the compartment, pressure can build up.

What are the types of compartment syndrome?

Compartment syndrome can be acute or chronic.

Acute compartment syndrome usually happens suddenly after severe injury. It is extremely painful and needs urgent treatment to prevent permanent damage.

Chronic compartment syndrome happens gradually, and is reversible. It is a rare condition that occurs more often in the legs than the arms.

What causes compartment syndrome?

You can develop acute compartment syndrome after serious injury such as bone fracture, crush injury (for example, from a car accident) or surgery. It is extremely painful.

Other causes include:

  • very tight bandages or plaster casts
  • snake bite
  • severe burns
  • severe bruising
  • anabolic steroid use
  • blood flow building up after blocked circulation

Repetitive exercise, such as running, cycling or rowing, can cause chronic compartment syndrome.

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What are the symptoms of compartment syndrome?

Acute compartment syndrome symptoms include:

  • intense pain — more painful than you might expect from your injury
  • increased pain and a feeling of tightness when you stretch affected muscles
  • pale, cold skin
  • a tingling or burning sensation in your skin
  • numbness and paralysis

Chronic compartment syndrome symptoms include:

  • pain or cramping during exercise that stops once the activity stops
  • difficulty moving your foot
  • a muscle bulge big enough to see

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

When should I see my doctor?

If you’re experiencing the symptoms listed above, you should see your doctor.

If your symptoms appeared after injury call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance or go immediately to an emergency department.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is compartment syndrome diagnosed?

Your doctor will talk to you, examine you and measure the pressure inside the compartment.

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How can I prevent acute compartment syndrome?

After an injury, you should elevate your arm or leg to reduce swelling. Tell your doctor or nurse if your bandages or plaster cast feel tight. They may need to adjust it. If pain and swelling increase, see your doctor immediately.

How will I be treated for compartment syndrome?

If you have acute compartment syndrome you’ll need a surgeon to cut open the skin and fascia to ease the pressure in the affected compartment.

If you have chronic compartment syndrome, resting will help. That is often enough for the condition to settle. Your doctor might also advise you to switch to low-impact exercise.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2022

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