The nerves, blood vessels and muscles in your arms and legs are grouped into compartments by tough tissue called fascia that keeps these groups in place. Although the fascia’s stiffness is what helps hold tissue in place, the rigidity of the fascia can become a problem if your muscle swells, since the fascia cannot stretch. For this reason, swelling can put intense pressure on the vessels, nerves and muscles of the affected limbs. There are four compartments in your lower leg, and this part of the body is the most common site of compartment syndrome.
There are two types of compartment syndrome: acute and chronic. One type of compartment syndrome, chronic compartment syndrome, is caused by exertion or exercise and generally is not dangerous. On the other hand, 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.
Specifically, acute compartment syndrome can be triggered a fracture, crush injury (for example, getting hit in the leg by a football player wearing a helmet), by wearing bandages that are too tight, or even when bloodflow is reestablished after surgery. The pain caused by acute compartment syndrome may seem more intense than what the injury itself would cause.
Acute compartment syndrome is a very serious condition, because loss of blood flow to a muscle can irreparably damage it. Therefore, it’s important that you visit an emergency room as soon as possible if you suspect you may have the syndrome. Once in a clinical setting, a doctor can measure the pressure in the affected compartment to determine if you have acute compartment syndrome.
There is no nonsurgical treatment for acute compartment syndrome; it requires opening the fascia to relieve the pressure that is being placed on the muscle and other tissue in the compartment. This incision is sewn shut once the pressure has returned to normal.