Page header image

Compartment Syndrome

What is compartment syndrome?

Compartment syndrome is pain and swelling caused by swollen muscles pressing against the sides of the compartment (or sheath) that surrounds the muscles. The sheath is called the fascia.

The syndrome occurs most often:

  • in the leg between the knee and ankle
  • in the leg between the thigh and knee
  • in the arm between the elbow and wrist

How does it occur?

Compartment syndrome occurs as the result of injury or overuse of the muscles of the lower leg or forearm.

These injuries can cause tissues in the area to swell. Fascia do not expand, so swelling cuts off circulation of blood to ligaments, muscles, and nerves. This affects the injured area and the area below the injury.

The compartments in the lower leg are generally most affected. This injury occurs most often in athletes who run a great deal.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms usually occur in the area of the affected compartment of the forearm, thigh, or leg. They can include:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • weakness
  • tenderness over the front of the shin
  • tingling or numbness of the leg, foot, or hand
  • foot drop (inability to lift the toes so that you must limp to keep the foot from dragging)
  • pain when you flex or point the big toe

How is it diagnosed?

To diagnose compartment syndrome, your healthcare provider will review your symptoms, examine you, and may do a needle test to measure the increased tissue pressure within the compartment.

How is it treated?

To treat this condition:

  • Put an ice pack, gel pack, or package of frozen vegetables, wrapped in a cloth on the area every 3 to 4 hours, for up to 20 minutes at a time.
  • Raise the area on a pillow when you sit or lie down.
  • Take an anti-inflammatory medicine such as ibuprofen, or other medicine as directed by your provider. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs) may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, do not take for more than 10 days.

If the injury is more severe, you may have tests such as an arteriogram to identify where the blood flow to the area is stopped.

Sometimes surgery is needed to release the pressure. This decreases swelling and restores blood flow to the area.

How long will the effects last?

The effects last as long as the problem exists. Use of muscles and nerves, as well as blood flow, must be restored to prevent paralysis.

How can I prevent it?

Do warm-up exercises before exercising. Gradually increase your exercise level for any job-related activity or exercise that requires constant use of lower arms and leg muscles.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2010-07-27
Last reviewed: 2009-12-28
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
Page footer image