Summary of Compartment Syndrome
The leg contains three groups of muscles, surrounded by restrictive lining that keeps each group within its “compartment”. This lining can occasionally restrict the muscles and stop them from expanding during physical activity, leading to a painful build-up of pressure during exercise.
Compartment Syndrome FAQ's
The muscles in our limbs are sectioned into compartments, surrounded by tissue lining. The lower leg is made up of three of these compartments, each responsible for a different area of movement. Compartment syndrome occurs when pressure builds up within a compartment due to the lack of stretching performed by the tissue lining, restricting the growth of the muscles during exercise. This pressure can equally be caused by a trauma like a fracture, which would require medical intervention immediately.
Chronic exertional compartment syndrome in particular is that which occurs over a long time, for example an athlete who trains regularly. The muscles during training will swell to allow the increased blood flow, however if the lining does not stretch to accommodate this, the pressure will increase until it causes shin splints – a debilitating pain in the legs that renders the patient unable to continue the activity.
The major symptom is pain which is heightened during physical activity. This pain is often described as a pressure on the front of the leg, which gradually gets worse until the sufferer can no longer run. The pressure and pain will begin to subside almost immediately as the pressure drops, but this causes a big problem for those engaged in training as the muscles feel weak and activity is painful.
The recovery time is dependent on the severity of symptoms and how well you are able to refrain from activity. Recovery time could range from weeks to months depending on these factors.
When the lining that surrounds the muscles does not expand to allow for increased muscle size during exercise, pressure builds up and the pain increases – leaving the patient unable to continue with the activity.
The issue is not fully understood in terms of why some people suffer more than others, but in the case of sports injuries the cause could be affected by a sudden increase in activity and distance, too much running on hard surfaces, insufficient rest, poor footwear, bad foot positioning during the activity, or a huge change in the type of running you are doing.
The first step of treatment is to rest from the activity and examine the training routine to see if improvements could be made. An exercise program may help loosen the muscles, and ice therapy will ease the pain.
In severe or persistent cases, a simple surgical procedure may be required to release the constricting lining and allow muscles a full range of activity. This is called ‘superficial fasciotomy’.
The majority of treatments will only serve to cover up the problem rather than fix it. Only by undertaking and performing the exercises well will you be able to loosen the muscles and allow them to fully recover. This also includes allowing your body adequate time to recover before you engage in the physical activity again.