What is compartment syndrome?

Compartment Syndrome
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Compartment syndrome: Overview

Compartment syndrome occurs when there is swelling inside a limb. The swelling causes pressure to build up and squeezes shut blood vessels and damages nerves. When the limb loses blood supply, it begins to ache. The ache increases to very severe pain. If compartment syndrome is not treated quickly, it can cause serious nerve and muscle damage and may lead to loss of the limb.

Compartment syndrome can happen if you have a very bad injury such as a broken or crushed bone, a snake bite, a bad burn, or severe skin and tissue damage. It also can develop if a cast or wrapping is too tight. It happens most often in the arm or leg.

Compartment syndrome

Compartment syndrome is a painful condition that develops when swelling takes place within an enclosed area (compartment), in which muscles, nerves, blood vessels, and bones in the compartment have no room to expand. Pressure on arteries, veins, and nerves causes extreme pain, slows circulation to the muscles and nerves, and may cause permanent damage to these tissues.

The swelling that causes compartment syndrome may be caused by decreased blood flow, trauma, bleeding, fluid buildup, or other things. Compartment syndrome is a medical emergency. It requires immediate treatment to prevent tissue death and permanent dysfunction.

Occasionally, people involved in a greatly increased level of physical activity—such as long-distance runners or new military recruits—may develop chronic compartment syndrome. With chronic compartment syndrome, symptoms are less sudden, less severe, and often improve with rest.

How can you care for yourself when you have compartment syndrome?

  • Follow your doctor's instructions about activity during your healing process. If you can do mild exercise, slowly increase your activity. Rest as much as you need to, and get enough sleep at night.
  • Put ice or a cold pack on the area for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. Put a thin cloth between the ice and your skin.
  • Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
    • If your doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
    • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, take an over-the-counter pain medicine. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
  • If you had surgery, take care of your cuts (incisions) as they heal.
    • If you have stitches, follow any specific instructions you got on how to take care of them. In general, keep the area clean and dry. Follow your surgeon's instructions on when you can get the incision wet.
    • If you have strips of tape on the incision, leave the strips on until your doctor says it is okay to remove them.
  • If you have a splint or a cast, follow the instructions your doctor gives you.

Compartment syndrome: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness).
  • You have severe pain in your toes or fingers, and they have turned dark blue or black in color.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new or worse pain.
  • Your foot or hand is cool or pale or changes color.
  • You have tingling or numbness in your hand or foot.
  • Your cast or splint feels too tight.
  • You have signs of a blood clot in your leg (called a deep vein thrombosis), such as:
    • Pain in your calf, back of the knee, thigh, or groin.
    • Redness or swelling in your leg.
  • You have signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness in the area.
    • Red streaks leading from the area.
    • Pus draining from the area.
    • A fever.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your pain is not getting better.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.