Compartment syndrome is a painful condition that can occur following a traumatic injury, such as injuries sustained in an automobile or motorcycle accident.  This condition involves the compression of nerves and muscle tissue in an enclosed space, leading to potential nerve and muscle damage and the restriction of blood flow.  Compartment syndrome affects the lower legs and forearms most commonly and sometimes present in the hands, feet, thighs, and upper arms.


Severe pain is the main symptom of compartment syndrome.  Unfortunately, common measures like elevating the affected area or taking pain medicine usually does little if anything to alleviate the pain.  Additional symptoms may present themselves in more extreme cases, including loss of sensation in the affected area, weakness, or a pale appearance in the skin.

Learning about the tissue structure surrounding muscle tissue is important to understanding compartment syndrome.  Muscles within the arms and legs are separated into groups by a thick tissue called fascia.  Muscle tissue, nerves, and blood vessels are surrounded by fascia in small compartments.  These compartments amount to a confined space with no room to expand when pressure and swelling occur following a crushing injury.  In the case of compartment syndrome, swelling may lead to a restriction in blood flow.  Permanent damage is a possibility; prolonged pressure can lead to the death of the limb and eventual amputation.


Major injuries from a Kansas City automobile or motorcycle accident can result in compartment syndrome.  Anytime crushing injuries lead to compression and pressure of the muscles, damage is likely.  Other causes of compartment syndrome may include casts and bandages that are too tight.  Compartment syndrome can also result from the repetitive use of muscles in athletic activities like running.  However, high-impact injuries remain the primary cause of this condition.



Compartment syndrome requires quick attention.  It is imperative that a medical examination occur as soon as possible following the trauma.  Permanent disability and damage to the nerves and muscles can occur if there is a delay in diagnosis.  An examination can reveal additional symptoms of concern, including pain when the affected area is moved, skin that is tight and shiny, and pain when the muscle tissue is squeezed.

A pressure test is used to determine the level of pressure in the compartment.  A needle attached to a pressure meter is inserted into the affected area.  Pressure that reads greater than 45 mmHg on the meter is considered a positive diagnosis of compartment syndrome.  This test must be performed as soon as possible when this syndrome is a possible complication to injury.


Once compartment syndrome is diagnosed treatment must begin immediately.  Surgery is most often performed, Typically, incisions are made in the fascia in an effort to relieve the pressure.  The wound is then usually left opened and covered with sterile bandages.  Follow up surgery to close the wound is then performed two to three days later. 

Where patients are unconscious or heavily sedated, diagnosis can be delayed from the lack of the patient's ability to alert doctors to the presence of severe pain.  Delays in treatment can lead to permanent nerve and muscle damage; it is important to note that damage can occur when compression is left untreated after only 12 to 24 hours.

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James Roswold
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James Roswold is a Kansas & Missouri personal injury, workers comp, and medical malpractice attorney.