Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome

What is Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome?

Compartment syndrome involves high pressure building inside a muscle group and blocking blood flow, and it’s considered a chronic exertional condition when it occurs every time the muscle is used extensively.

The chronic version of compartment syndrome is not considered a medical emergency, but it’s still damaging to your muscle tissue and requires treatment. This compartment syndrome is caused by exertion of the muscle group, resulting in swollen tissue. Repetition is usually necessary to trigger swelling, but not in all patients.

What are the Symptoms of Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome?

Symptoms of chronic exertional compartment syndrome most commonly affects the large muscles in the shins or thighs of the legs, but they can also occur in the forearms and upper arms as well.

Symptoms include

  • Numbness that eventually goes away on its own
  • Sudden sharp pain radiating up or down the affected limb
  • Bulging or swelling that is visible to the eye
  • Sudden weakness that fades over time
  • Limited movement and range of the foot or hand at the end of the affected muscle group.

Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome Causes

Doctors don’t fully understand all the causes behind chronic exertional compartment syndrome. It is fairly well established that the primary cause of the syndrome is over-exertion in one or more muscles, which results in a reduction of blood flow to the muscles.

When a person performs any type of strenuous exercise, the flow of blood to the muscles greatly increases. When this occurs, the tissues that surround the muscles ordinarily expand along with the muscles. However, in chronic exertional compartment syndrome, the tissues surrounding the muscles do not expand, causing pressure to build up in the muscles. This, in turn, leads to a lack of blood supply to the muscles and may result in muscle damage.

Some doctors hold that chronic exertional compartment syndrome is caused when certain people have larger than average muscles. Others believe that a possible cause of the syndrome is high blood pressure in the veins that supply the muscles that are affected.

How is Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome Treated?

After ruling out the potential for tendonitis and fractures of the bones that can also trigger swollen muscle groups, a doctor can suggest a treatment plan that involves physical therapy and pain killers. Reducing immediate inflammation and swelling after exercise is handled with medication, while physical therapy helps you change how your muscles respond to pressure and strain.

You may need to stop practicing a certain sport or exercise program permanently. For chronic cases that don’t respond to these treatments and which threaten the health of the muscles, nerves, and blood supply, surgery may be necessary. This elective surgery involves loosening the fascia that surrounds the muscle group to give it more space to swell without cutting off circulation, resulting in reduced pain and numbness.

Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome Prevention

There are several different methods that may be used to help prevent the development of chronic exertional compartment syndrome. One of the best means of prevention is warming up the muscles before any period of strenuous exercise. Also, make sure to fully stretch out the muscles before exercising. Massaging the muscles may help to increase the blood flow, thus helping to prevent development of symptoms.

For those with serious chronic exertional compartment syndrome, it may be necessary to find a different form of exercise that will not result in symptoms such as pain. If that is not desirable, it may help prevent symptoms to cut the exercise period up into smaller units with break periods in between.

Some runners have found in helpful to adopt a different stride pattern when running. This helps reduce strain up the leg and keeps the blood flowing.