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Compartment Syndrome

Compartment syndrome is a painful condition brought on by a build-up of pressure in the muscle compartments. Muscle compartments are groups of muscles found in our arms and legs that are covered by a protective layer known as the fascia. The fascia is not very flexible, so when one muscle swells, this can place the whole group under pressure. This in turn decreases blood flow, depriving the muscles of blood, oxygen and lymph.

Chronic vs Acute

There are two different types of compartment syndrome, both quite distinct from one another. Chronic or exertional department syndrome is most often a result of long-term habits. Sports such as running, cycling or swimming are often the cause, with most cases occurring in the lower leg. The repetitive motions of these sports causes gradual damage to the muscles, which means that it manifests much more slowly than acute compartment syndrome. While this also means that the recovery time can be long, chronic department syndrome is much less dangerous than its acute counterpart.

Acute compartment syndrome is brought on suddenly, usually as a result of a severe injury, such as a fracture or crushing injury. Acute compartment syndrome is a medical emergency, and medical attention should be sought immediately. Failure to do so could lead to permanent muscle damage.

The symptoms of acute compartment syndrome are usually worse than you would expect for the injury you have sustained. The pain will be more intense, and your skin may initially feel hot and tight. As time passes, these feelings will subside and be replaced by numbness or paralysis, which is often a sign of permanent tissue damage.

Treatment

There are currently no effective non-surgical treatments for acute compartment syndrome. If you do sustain an injury that results in the condition, an emergency surgery will be required to relieve the pressure. This involves a procedure known as a fasciotomy, which is when your surgeon makes an incision in the fascia to give the muscles more room. How soon this incision can be closed depends on the severity of the swelling, but failing to relieve the pressure in time can lead to permanent damage and even disability.

As chronic compartment syndrome takes place at a much slower pace, it is not a medical emergency, and surgery is rarely suggested as a treatment option, other than as a last resort. As it is usually attributed to sports, taking a step back for a few months may be necessary for a full recovery.

Physiotherapy is also an effective way to reverse the symptoms. Our Chartered Physiotherapists can use a combination of myofascial release, massage, dry needling and/or stretching to help release and stretch out tight muscles and fascia which are contributing to the condition.