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Compartment Syndrome

Compartment Syndrome

Compartment syndrome is a painful condition that is the result of a buildup of pressure around a muscle within a muscle compartment. This pressure can decrease blood flow and prevent nourishment and oxygen from reaching nerve and muscle cells, which can lead to tissue death and permanent damage. You can get the best help from the experienced orthopedic specialists at OCC – Advanced Orthopedic & Sports Medicine Specialists in Denver, Parker, or Aurora, Colorado. Rapid diagnosis and prompt, accurate treatment leads to the best outcomes.


Compartment syndrome, also called exertional compartment syndrome (CESE), can happen to any muscle group, but 95% of cases are in the lower leg. It can be either acute (having severe symptoms for a short period) or chronic (long-lasting), depending on the injury that caused it. The median age of onset is under age 30 in male and female athletes. It is most commonly due to physical trauma such as a bone fracture (up to 75% of cases), but it can also be caused by acute exertion during sport.


Compartments are groupings of muscles, nerves, and blood vessels in the legs. The lower leg, for example, has four compartments. Webs of connective tissue called facia surround these structures, similar to how insulation covers wires. The role of the fascia is to keep the tissues in place, and, therefore, unlike muscles, the fascia does not stretch or expand easily to make room for swelling, blood, or fluid resulting from inflammation or injury. As pressure keeps building in the compartment, the fascia eventually runs out of room and starts squeezing against the muscles and nerves.


There are two types of compartment syndrome: chronic and acute. Both conditions involve increased pressure within a muscle compartment, but they differ in their onset, symptoms, and management.

  • Chronic: Chronic, also known as exertional compartment syndrome, tends to develop gradually over time, usually in individuals who engage in repetitive or prolonged physical activities. The increased pressure within the muscle compartment occurs during exercise when the muscle swells, but the pressure usually subsides with rest. Chronic exertional compartment syndrome often occurs in the same compartment of an affected limb on both sides of the body, usually the lower leg.
  • Acute: Acute is the most common and more serious type of compartment syndrome.  Seventy-five percent of cases of acute compartment syndrome are associated with fractures, with tibial fractures being the most common cause of the condition, followed by distal radius fractures. Acute compartment syndrome develops rapidly over hours or days and requires immediate medical attention.

Read more about Compartment Syndrome on our new Orthopedic News Site – Colorado Orthopedic News. Schedule an appointment with a sports medicine specialist today.

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