Department of hand surgery & Microsurgery.

Chronic Compartment Syndrome

Compartment syndrome

Compartment syndrome is a painful and potentially serious condition caused by bleeding or swelling within an enclosed bundle of muscles – known as a muscle compartment. Each group of muscles in the arms and legs, together with nearby blood vessels and nerves, is contained in a space surrounded by tissue called fascia. Compartment syndrome occurs when the pressure within a compartment increases, restricting the blood flow to the area and potentially damaging the muscles and nearby nerves. It usually occurs in the legs, feet, arms or hands, but can occur wherever there's an enclosed compartment inside the body.

Types of compartment syndrome

There are 2 main types of compartment syndrome: acute compartment syndrome and chronic (also called exertional) compartment syndrome.

Acute compartment syndrome:

  • Happens suddenly, usually after a fracture or severe injury
  • Is a medical emergency and requires urgent treatment
  • Can lead to permanent muscle damage if not treated quickly

Chronic compartment syndrome:

  • Happens gradually, usually during and immediately after repetitive exercise (such as running or cycling)
  • Usually passes within minutes of stopping the activity
  • Is not a medical emergency and does not cause permanent damage
Symptoms of chronic compartment syndrome

Symptoms of chronic compartment syndrome tend to develop gradually during exercise and improve with rest. Symptoms can include:

  • Cramping pain during exercise, most often in the legs.
  • Swelling or a visibly bulging muscle.
  • A tingling sensation.
  • The affected area turning pale and cold.
  • In severe cases, difficulty moving the affected body part.
When to get medical advice

Chronic compartment syndrome is much less serious, but it's a good idea to get your symptoms checked out and have the cause diagnosed.

Causes of chronic compartment syndrome

Chronic compartment syndrome usually occurs in young people who do regular repetitive exercise, such as running or cycling. The exact cause is unknown. A leading theory is that it's caused by temporary swelling of the muscles during exercise affecting the blood supply to a whole group of muscles.

Treatments for chronic compartment syndrome

Chronic compartment syndrome is not usually dangerous, and can sometimes be relieved by stopping the exercise that triggers it and switching to a less strenuous activity. Surgery will only be considered if your symptoms persist despite these measures.