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Understanding Compartment Syndrome: A Physiotherapy Perspective

Blogs, / By Winsen Citra

Compartment syndrome is a serious condition that can occur when pressure within the muscles builds to dangerous levels. This pressure can decrease blood flow, preventing nourishment and oxygen from reaching nerve and muscle cells. For athletes, physically active individuals, and even those recovering from injury, understanding compartment syndrome is crucial. In this blog post, we’ll delve into the different aspects of compartment syndrome and discuss how physiotherapy can play a vital role in both prevention and recovery.

What is Compartment Syndrome?

Compartment syndrome occurs when pressure within a confined body space, particularly in muscle compartments in the arms or legs, escalates to a point where it impairs circulation and nerve function. This condition can be acute, often due to injury, or chronic, as a result of repetitive exercise or exertion.

Acute Compartment Syndrome

This form is a medical emergency, typically caused by a severe injury such as a fracture. Symptoms may develop rapidly and include severe pain, swelling, and a decrease in sensation or even paralysis in the affected area.

Chronic Compartment Syndrome

Also known as exertional compartment syndrome, this type usually develops over time, mostly in athletes who engage in repetitive activities like running or biking. Symptoms often manifest during exercise and subside with rest.

Symptoms to Watch For

Whether acute or chronic, the signs of compartment syndrome include:

  • Intense and persistent pain that does not improve with medication or elevation
  • Muscle tightness and swelling
  • Tingling or burning sensations in the muscles
  • Weakness or difficulty moving the affected area

Physiotherapy and Compartment Syndrome

Prevention

Physiotherapists can play a crucial role in preventing compartment syndrome, especially the chronic type. They can help:

  • Assess and correct biomechanical imbalances that contribute to muscle overload.
  • Design exercise programs that increase muscle endurance and strength without overexertion.
  • Educate on proper exercise techniques and recovery strategies, including stretching and hydration, which are key to preventing muscle overload.

Treatment

For chronic compartment syndrome, physiotherapy focuses on managing symptoms and modifying activity levels to manage the condition effectively:

  • Exercise Modification: Adjusting the type and intensity of exercise routines to avoid triggering symptoms.
  • Manual Therapy: Techniques such as soft tissue massage can help reduce muscle tension and improve circulation.
  • Stretching and Strengthening Exercises: Tailored exercises to improve flexibility and enhance blood flow, as well as strengthening surrounding muscles to support affected compartments.

Post-Surgical Rehabilitation

In severe cases of acute compartment syndrome, surgery may be required to relieve pressure. Post-surgery, physiotherapy is vital for:

  • Restoring normal muscle and joint function.
  • Gradual strengthening exercises to rebuild muscle strength without exacerbating symptoms.
  • Ensuring a safe return to daily activities or sport.

Conclusion

Compartment syndrome is a serious condition that can lead to permanent muscle and nerve damage if not addressed promptly. Whether you are an athlete or someone who enjoys a physically active lifestyle, understanding the risks and symptoms of compartment syndrome is critical. With the help of a skilled physiotherapist, both preventive measures and effective treatment plans can be implemented to ensure safe physical practices and maintain overall muscle health. If you experience any symptoms of compartment syndrome, seek professional advice immediately to avoid complications.

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Winsen Citra
Principal Physiotherapist

Winsen graduated from University of Melbourne in 2011. He worked in organisations of various sizes such as Singapore General Hospital, Pain Relief Practice, and Physioclinic before working at Elevate Physiotherapy. He specialises in sports and musculoskeletal injuries and has worked with athletes of various sports such as fencing, dancing, dragon boating, and cycling.

In his spare time he enjoys singing and playing chess.