A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

What is compartment syndrome?

bicyclist on country road

Compartment syndrome can occur when an injury causes swelling that impedes blood flow. Preconditioning and warm-ups can help with prevention.

You may think of your muscles as singular organs.

Actually, muscles are surrounded by walls of tough fascia and grouped and organized into spaces called compartments. When an injury causes swelling that impedes blood flow within a compartment, compartment syndrome can occur.

Fluid is produced from the inflammation and collects in the injured compartment. Because the fascia doesn’t easily expand, compartment pressure can rise and prevent blood flow to the injured area and surrounding tissues. Permanent tissue damage can result including loss of body function and even death.

The good news? Your body will try to repair itself after injury and increases blood flow to the injured site.

Forms of compartment syndrome

Acute compartment syndrome is most common. It can develop within a few hours and quickly become a medical emergency. Causes may include:

  • Bone fracture.
  • Extremely vigorous exercise.
  • A blood clot in the arm or leg.
  • Overly tight bandaging or taping.

Exercise-induced or chronic compartment syndrome usually has similar recurring symptoms that appear during high exercise periods. Symptoms may include deep aches and pains particularly in the legs that may resolve with rest.

Tense, swollen and shiny skin, slow capillary refill and weak pulse are signs of acute or chronic compartment syndrome.

Precondition and warm-up

Pre-activity stretching, particularly of lower body leg muscles, can help prevent exercise-induced compartment syndrome.

Avoid doing too much too soon. You can help prevent injury by pacing yourself and progressively increasing exercise intensity while allowing enough time between workouts for recovery.

To reduce inflammation from exercise, use non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, ice and elevation.

Get an appropriate diagnosis. Symptoms for chronic compartment syndrome may seem similar to other related conditions such as shin splints. See your doctor for an appropriate diagnosis to ensure you are correctly treating the problem.

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This post provided by Sports Wrap, from Marshfield Clinic Sports Medicine.

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