Compartment syndrome

Usually occurs in the legs, feet, arms or hands

A build-up of pressure in the leg muscles that can restrict blood flow, causing severe pain and can risk long-term damage

What is compartment syndrome?

Each group of muscles in the arm and leg are bundled together and occupy a space called a muscle compartment. It also contains nerves and blood vessels and is surrounded by tissue called fascia.
Compartment syndrome is when pressure builds up within the space of the muscle compartment, for example as a result of swelling or bleeding, and if left untreated can lead to damage in the muscles and nerves.

Need to know

  • What are the symptoms of compartment syndrome? icon plus

    Compartment syndrome can affect the hands, arms, feet, buttocks and, most commonly, the lower legs. There are two types of the condition. Acute compartment syndrome usually results from serious injury, like fractures and burns, or even occur after surgery — it can quickly worsen. The main symptoms include:

    • severe pain, even at rest and especially when the muscle is stretched
    • tenderness
    • tightness in the muscle and reduced mobility
    • tingling or numbness

    Chronic compartment syndrome appears gradually with exercise and eases at rest. Symptoms usually include: 

    • cramping pain, especially in the lower legs
    • swelling or bulging muscle
    • tingling
  • How is compartment syndrome diagnosed? icon plus

    In order to diagnose chronic compartment syndrome, your consultant will want to eliminate other potential causes of pain. So they may check for tendonitis and request an X-ray to check for a stress fracture. The actual diagnosis may come from your consultant checking the pressure in your muscle compartments, both before and after exercise.
  • Potential treatment options icon plus

    Acute compartment syndrome is a medical emergency and will require surgical procedure to relieve the pressure immediately within hours of onset. Chronic compartment syndrome, also known as exertional compartment syndrome, can often be triggered by a particular exercise. It is not an emergency, but your consultant might recommend physiotherapy, shoe inserts or anti-inflammatory medicines to relieve the condition. If your symptoms continue despite these measures, your consultant may consider surgery called a fasciotomy to relieve the pressure.

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This content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional.
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