In your arms and legs, the muscles, blood vessels and nerves are grouped into compartments by tough tissue called fascia, which is designed to keep these groupings in place. The fascia’s stiffness can become a problem, however, if your muscle swells. That’s because the fascia cannot stretch, and the swelling can put intense pressure on the vessels, nerves and muscles of the affected limbs.
There are two types of compartment syndrome: acute and chronic. Acute compartment syndrome is considered a medical emergency. It causes tingling, intense pain, and a feeling of fullness in the affected muscle, and it is usually caused by trauma to your limb, such as from a car accident or being rammed in the leg by a football player’s helmet. If you think you have acute compartment syndrome, it’s important that you seek emergency treatment as soon as possible, since the condition can result in permanent muscle damage.
Compartment syndrome in its chronic form, however, stems from exercise that entails repetitive motions, such as running, tennis, swimming and biking. Symptoms include a visibly bulging muscle, difficulty moving the limb and numbness. This condition generally clears up on its own if you rest from the activity that caused it; other conservative treatments, that may be effective include rest, anti-inflammatory medications and physical therapy. Still, you should consult a doctor to rule out other possible causes of your limb pain, such as a stress fracture or tendinitis. In addition, these non-surgical methods sometimes are unsuccessful in treating chronic compartment syndrome; therefore, surgery may be necessary to make more room for the enlarged muscle by opening up the fascia surrounding the affected muscle.
To prevent chronic compartment syndrome, make sure you warm up appropriately when exercising and cool down afterward, and that you stay well-hydrated while you’re being active. Participating in a variety of athletic activities can give certain muscles a chance to rest between workouts, cutting down on your risk of chronic compartment syndrome.