Merck Manual

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Quick Facts

Compartment Syndrome

By

The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Apr 2019
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What is compartment syndrome?

Compartment syndrome is increased pressure from a swollen, hurt muscle that cuts off blood flow to that muscle and nearby ones.

In some parts of your body, a tough layer of tissue wraps around a group of muscles, nerves, and blood vessels. That wrapped up bundle of tissue is called a compartment. If an injured muscle within the compartment swells up, the tough tissue may not stretch enough to allow the muscle to swell like it needs to. Instead, the swelling increases pressure within the compartment and can cut off blood flow. Without blood, the tissue in the compartment dies.

  • Compartment syndrome is rare, but it’s a very serious complication of certain injuries

  • It usually happens from a broken bone in your lower arm or lower leg

  • The main symptom is severe, worsening pain in your injured body part

  • If you don't get treatment, the muscles die and you get gangrene

  • Doctors do surgery to cut the tough layer of tissue and open the compartment, which relieves the pressure

  • If you don't get treatment in time, doctors may need to amputate (cut off) your limb

What causes compartment syndrome?

Compartment syndrome is usually caused by:

  • A broken bone (fracture), especially in your lower leg

  • An injury in which one of your arms or legs was crushed

Less often, compartment syndrome is caused by:

  • Tight bandage or cast

  • Snakebite

  • Burn

  • Drug overdose

What are the symptoms of compartment syndrome?

The main symptom is:

  • Severe pain in the injured body part that keeps getting worse—the pain is usually more severe than what you'd expect from the injury

You may also have:

  • Pain when you move the fingers or toes of an injured arm or leg

  • Pain so severe that medicines don’t help

  • Numbness of the fingers or toes of an injured arm or leg

  • Pale, cool, and tight skin

How can doctors tell if I have compartment syndrome?

Doctors will:

  • Check the pulse in your injured body part

  • Put a needle into your injured limb to measure the pressure in the area around the muscle

How do doctors treat compartment syndrome?

Doctors will:

  • Quickly take off your splint, cast, or anything putting pressure on the body part

  • Usually do surgery to cut open the compartment, which will ease pressure and let blood reach your muscles

  • If your tissues have died, the body part may need to be amputated (cut off)

It’s very important to get treatment for compartment syndrome right away, because it can cause a life-threatening infection in your arm or leg.

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