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Compartment syndrome

3-minute read

What is compartment syndrome?

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

What is a compartment?

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 or fluid inside the compartment, pressure builds up.

What are the types of compartment syndrome?

Compartment syndrome can be acute or chronic.

Acute compartment syndrome happens suddenly and needs urgent treatment. If you think you have acute compartment syndrome, you need to seek medical attention right away.

Chronic compartment syndrome happens gradually.

What are the symptoms of compartment syndrome?

Acute compartment syndrome symptoms:

  • intense pain — usually more painful than you might expect from your injury
  • increased pain when you stretch your affected muscle
  • your skin may look pale and feel cold to touch
  • tight muscles when you stretch
  • tingling or burning in the skin
  • numbness and paralysis

Chronic compartment syndrome symptoms:

  • pain or cramping during exercise that stops once the activity stops
  • difficulty moving your foot
  • a muscle bulge big enough to see
Illustration showing how a haemodialysis works.
A compartment is a group of muscles, nerves and blood vessels in the arm or leg.

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
  • snake bite
  • a severe burn
  • severe bruising
  • anabolic steroid use
  • blood flow building up after blocked circulation

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

How is compartment syndrome diagnosed?

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

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How is compartment syndrome treated?

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 removed. You will also be asked to have your limb up in the air.

If that doesn’t ease pain straight away, you will 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.

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Last reviewed: March 2020

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