Acute Compartment Syndrome: Blood, Trauma & Science Skip to main content

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Acute Compartment Syndrome: Blood, Trauma & Science

Chiropractic scientist, Dr. Alexander Jimenez has a look at this painful condition which can be the cause of a lot of lost playing time.

Last year, rugby union player Anthony Allen of the Leicester Tigers endured what he believed was a reasonably straightforward blow to the exterior of his shin -- but it ended up being a nightmare which would keep him out for four weeks of rugby.

In October 2013, he thought he'd sprained his ankle in a match, as he did not recall sustaining a direct blow to the surface of the shin. Over the ensuing days, he noticed that the pain was worsening and he was experiencing swelling and pain sensations further down the shin away from the website of the accident, with some minor paraesthesia into the top of the foot.

He alerted the medical staff to his worsening illness and they immediately referred him to an orthopaedic surgeon who watched the leg using an ultrasound (to exclude a deep vein thrombosis), after which an MRI, which confirmed that the participant was suffering from an acute compartment syndrome in the lower leg. They conducted an operation to successfully alleviate the pressure from the leg, and he was told that the rehabilitation following this harm could be 3-4 weeks.

What Is Compartment Syndrome?

When a body part receives a direct blow because of an external object, muscle damage can ensue. The outcome is a hematoma, which is a swelling inside the muscle due to blood accumulation -- a consequence of the direct bleeding of this muscle as little venules and possibly arterioles are damaged and 'leak' blood to the region, which then collects into a mass.

A hematoma can grow within the muscle or external to the true muscle and involving the fascial sheaths that surround the muscle. The majority of those hematomas are benign and, although painful for 7-21 days, they finally resolve and the sufferer regains full purpose.

The origin of the direct blow may be the sufferer contacting another person forcefully, as in being kicked in soccer or martial arts or a direct blow due to a tackle in football. These are commonly known as 'contusions', ' 'corks' or ' 'charley horses'.

This is called the osteofascial compartment. This growth in volume within a enclosed space eventually compresses the blood vessels and nerves that run through the compartment and symptoms have been exacerbated.

Who Can Get Compartment Syndrome?

Most cases of compartment syndrome are a result of high velocity trauma like motor vehicle accident or falling out of a quick- moving bike/horse. These generally involve a bone fracture like the tibia in the upper leg or the radius in the forearm. The amount of blood discharged from the bone will collect in the osteofascial compartment.

But, they may also be caused by lead high-force 'crush'-type injuries which do not break bones but do end up damaging a lot of muscle tissue. This can be because of a direct hefty blow that spreads the pressure across a wide region and does not violate any underlying bone. Severe burns may also lead to compartment syndromes.

Young males are the most likely victims as ordinarily they're involved in sport and pastimes that may expose them to high velocity or high-force trauma that may cause this pathology. Individuals on anti-coagulant blood thinners are also more vulnerable.

Because the fascia of the compartment does not stretch, a little increase in blood volume can result in large increases in pressure. This rapidly compresses the nerves and blood vessels (typically veins) and the normal late signs of compartment syndrome like needles and pins and deficiency of pulses may then result. Arteries are usually spared as the systolic blood pressure in the gut is usually too high to be compressed by the compartment pressure.

Chronic compartment syndromes which are not medical emergencies may occur in athletes because of a slow growth in muscle size because of hypertrophy with an overlying fascia that doesn't stretch. This impacts runners, cyclists and even bodybuilders.

Signs & Symptoms

The usual signs and symptoms of an acute compartment syndrome are called the 6 Ps:
  • Pain (out of proportion to expected tissue damage). Usually a deep pain and is aggravated by stretch of the muscle;
  • Paralysis due to compression of motor nerves;
  • Pallor due to blood vessel compression;
  • Paraesthesia due compression of nerves.;
  • Pressure elevation (measurable);
  • Pulselessness (rare and usually only if severe compression).
The pain and neurological disorders (pins and needles) have been early signals; diminished or absent pulses and paralysis are late signs. Pallor may come with a swollen and tense muscle because of the collection of blood at the underlying muscle compartment.


The most direct measure for compartment syndrome is a compartment pressure test. In such examples, it has been recommended that the compartment decompression may be necessary.


This involves an incision into the thoracic fascia, similar to how a sausage on the BBQ may be sliced to discharge juices from a swelling sausage since it is being heated.

It is common place to perform a fasciotomy on all the compartments in the area affected.

As a result of sudden onset of elevated compartment pressure, if the injury isn't dealt with immediately, catastrophic permanent damage to the muscle, nerves and blood vessels can result, leaving permanent scarring in these types of structures and generally rhabdomyolysis may ensue, leaking toxins into the blood stream that might result in kidney damage.


Following operation, the time frame for return to straightforward activities like walking is generally quite quick and the individual might be functional with this particular capacity in 4-6 weeks. They might require gentle soft tissue massage to stop excessive scarring and adhesions, and gentle progressive strength training to recover lost muscle functioning.

The athlete needs a longer time frame to return to perform as they will need a more systematic rehabilitation protocol which takes them from walking to running to sprinting and ultimately explosive movements such as jumps and take-off moves.

They'll require longer to regain strength and full stretch in addition to other high-level capacities such as proprioception and balance control.

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