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Family Foot Care & Surgery, LLC

Compartment Syndrome: Dangerously Swollen Muscles

Most of the time, sore muscles have a simple cause. They may have worked harder than normal, been stretched beyond their normal range, or become exhausted. Sometimes the pain is the result of an injury, whether from overuse or an accident. Occasionally, though, that aching and burning you think is shin splints is actually a sign of a potentially serious condition called compartment syndrome.

Swelling in Muscle Bundles

Compartment syndrome is a painful problem with swelling and pressure in your muscle compartments. Your muscles are held together and in the proper place by tough tissue sheaths called fascias. A fascia does not stretch or expand easily, which helps protect your muscles and keep them where they belong. These muscle groups in fascia sheaths are called compartments, and you have them all over your body, including four in your lower leg that directly impact—and are affected by—the feet and ankles.

The problem develops when you have swelling or bleeding inside the compartment that puts pressure on the muscles, blood vessels, and nerves there. Since the sheath doesn’t stretch much, there isn’t a way for the compartment to expand and accommodate the abnormal pressure. This causes pain and can seriously damage the various tissues inside.

Limb Damage

There are actually two types of compartment syndrome: acute and chronic. The acute version typically develops after a serious injury. There is some sort of trauma to the leg that badly damages the muscles, causing swelling or bleeding, or blood flow to a limb is sharply restricted for an extended period of time. This type of leg swelling is considered an emergency and needs immediate treatment to avoid permanent issues.

The chronic type, also called chronic exertional compartment syndrome, is an overuse injury. The muscles become overworked and exhausted, then swell as a result. This still causes problems with the tissues in the compartments. The condition progresses with time and exercise, too, further damaging the limb the longer the symptoms persist.

You end up with aching, burning, cramping pain in the affected limb. Your muscles may feel tight or weak as well. Sometimes the pressure can cause numbness and tingling down your leg and in your feet. More advanced cases may actually lead to foot drop. Your limb may feel swollen and there might even be bruising. The pain may not improve with self-care methods, particularly if it’s acute. Stretching may make you feel worse. Occasionally you develop a lump or bulge in the affected muscle.

Alleviating the Pressure

Untreated swelling in muscle compartments can permanently injure your lower leg, which is why you need to seek treatment for the issue promptly—especially if it’s the acute kind. Dr. Sanjay Patel and our expert staff will carefully examine your lower limbs to diagnose the problem and rule out other injuries. We will need to check the pressure in your muscle compartments to determine how serious your condition is. We may use other tests to check for damage that could be contributing to the problem as well. Then we can begin appropriate treatment.

Acute compartment syndrome is a medical emergency. The leg swelling needs to be relieved right away to prevent permanent damage. Unfortunately, there isn’t an effective conservative therapy for this problem. Surgery is the quickest and most effective way to alleviate the pressure so your tissues can heal. You’ll need an incision in the fascia to allow the muscle to swell without being squeezed.

The chronic syndrome, however, can be treated conservatively. You’ll need to rest your foot and take steps to reduce the strain on your muscles. This will mean taking a break from activities that cause pain. You may need to switch your footwear to more supportive models or wear orthotics to correct your biomechanics, too. Physical therapy to stretch and strengthen your muscles may help reduce the strain and condition your leg muscles to handle exercise better. If these methods fail, surgery to relieve pressure may be necessary.

Swelling of muscle compartments is a serious issue that can permanently damage your lower limbs. Don’t ever ignore this kind of muscle pain. Let Dr. Sanjay Patel at Family Foot Care & Surgery, L.L.C. in Connecticut help you manage the problem and restore health to your legs. Use the website request page or call us to make an appointment: (203) 876-7736 for out Milford office, or (203) 288-4055 for the Hamden location.

Dr. Sanjay V. Patel
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Dr. Patel has over 20 years of experience in the field of podiatric medicine and podiatric surgery.