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Compartment syndrome is a condition caused by pressure in a group of muscles.

Compartment syndrome is a condition caused by pressure in a group of muscles.
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Compartment syndrome

Compartment syndrome is a painful condition caused by pressure in a group of muscles (a muscle compartment). That pressure can caused by bleeding or swelling.

What is a compartment?

A compartment is a group of muscles in your arm or leg. The group of muscles is enclosed in a tough sheath that keeps the muscles together. The sheath does not stretch easily, so if there is a build-up of blood inside the compartment, pressure builds up.

Types of compartment syndrome

Compartment syndrome can be acute or chronic.

Acute compartment syndrome happens suddenly and needs urgent treatment.

Chronic compartment syndrome happens gradually.

What causes compartment syndrome?

Acute compartment syndrome usually develops after a serious injury such as a bone fracture or a crush injury.

Other causes include:

  • very tight bandages or plaster casts
  • severe bruising
  • blood flow returning after blocked circulation.

Chronic compartment syndrome is usually caused by repetitive exercise, such as running or cycling, that leads to swelling.

Compartment syndrome symptoms

Acute compartment syndrome causes:

  • intense pain – usually more painful than you might expect from your injury
  • increased pain when you stretch your affected muscle
  • tight muscles when you stretch
  • tingling or burning in the skin
  • numbness and paralysis.

Chronic compartment syndrome causes:

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

Compartment syndrome diagnosis

Your doctor will talk to you and examine you. There are ways to measure the pressure inside the compartment.

Compartment syndrome treatment

If you have acute compartment syndrome, you will need to reduce the pressure on the arm or leg. If you have a bandage or plaster on, it will need to be loosened. You will also be asked to have your limb up in the air.

If that doesn’t ease pain, you might need surgery to cut into the muscle compartment and ease the pressure.

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

Last reviewed: December 2015

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