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Pain Management Health Center

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Compartment Syndrome

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Compartment Syndrome Symptoms

Acute compartment syndrome usually develops over a few hours after a serious injury to an arm or leg. Some symptoms of acute compartment syndrome include:

  • A new and persistent deep ache in an arm or leg
  • Pain that seems greater than expected for the severity of the injury
  • Numbness, pins-and-needles, or electricity-like pain in the limb
  • Swelling, tightness and bruising

Symptoms of chronic compartment syndrome (exertional compartment syndrome) include worsening aching or cramping in the affected muscle (buttock, thigh, or lower leg) within a half-hour of starting exercise. Symptoms usually go away with rest, and muscle function remains normal. Exertional compartment syndrome can feel like shin splints and be confused with that condition.

Abdominal compartment syndrome usually develops in people who are hospitalized and critically ill on life support. They usually cannot describe their symptoms. Doctors or family may notice the abdominal compartment syndrome symptoms and signs:

  • A tense, distended abdomen
  • Wincing when the abdomen is pressed
  • Urine output that slows down or stops
  • Low blood pressure

Compartment Syndrome Diagnosis

A doctor may suspect compartment syndrome based on the type of injury, a person's description of symptoms, and a physical exam. Sometimes, the diagnosis of compartment syndrome is clear from these findings.

In many cases, a definite diagnosis of compartment syndrome requires direct measurement of pressures inside the body compartment. To do this, a doctor can insert a needle into the area of suspected compartment syndrome while an attached pressure monitor records the pressure. A plastic catheter can also be inserted to monitor the compartment pressure continuously.

In suspected abdominal compartment syndrome, a pressure monitor can be inserted into the bladder through a urinary catheter. High pressures in the bladder, when there are signs of abdominal compartment syndrome, strongly suggest the diagnosis.

Laboratory and imaging tests can support the diagnosis of compartment syndrome. But no single test other than a direct pressure measurement can make the abdominal compartment syndrome diagnosis.

Compartment Syndrome Treatments

Treatments for compartment syndrome focus on reducing the dangerous pressure in the body compartment. Dressings, casts, or splints that are constricting the affected body part must be removed.

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