Compartment syndrome

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Acute compartment syndrome (CS) of a limb is due to raised pressure within a closed fascia compartment causing local tissue ischaemia and hypoxia.

Commonest causes

CS can occur in any muscle compartment, most commonly the lower leg and forearm.

  • Tibia fractures – up to 48 hours after injury
  • Tibia fractures – up to 48 hours after fixation
  • Forearm fractures
  • High energy wrist fractures
  •  Crush injuries
  • Reperfusion to ischaemic limbs
  • Prolonged immobilisation or a ‘long lie’
  • Restrictive dressings/casts 


Pulses - Pulses are normally present in CS. Absent pulses are usually due to:

  • Systemic hypotension
  • Arterial occlusion
  • Vascular injury 

Palpably tense compartments may suggest CS but its absence does not rule out CS; this clinical finding is also highly subjective.

Open fractures even with traumatic fasciotomy open tibia fractures have higher rates of CS than closed fractures.

Regional anaesthesia and analgesia –Avoid where possible in patients at high risk for compartment syndrome.

Foot CS – There is no consensus on management.

Clinical symptoms/signs

The cardinal features of compartment syndrome are:

  • Pain out of proportion to the associated injury
  • Pain on passive movement of the muscles within the affected compartment

Pain may be difficult to assess in patients with fractures. Clinicians should be alerted to any paraesthesia / reduced sensation in the distribution of nerves within the affected compartment.

Please also refer to the British Orthopaedic Association's guidelines on management of compartment syndrome of the limbs (click here)

Pain assessment

  • Assess pain scores hourly for all patients. Considering the amount of opiates used and the response to opiates
  • Seek immediate senior orthopaedic opinion (ST4+) if any of the following:
    • Pain scores not improving
    • Increasing opiate use
    • Poor response to opiates


Please see the Acute Limb Compartment Observation Chart 

As well as pain also document the following hourly

  • Neurology
  • Capillary refill time
  • Peripheral pulses
  • Compartment pressures (when a compartment monitor has been placed) 

None of these findings contribute to early diagnosis

Management of suspected compartment syndrome

Initial Management

  1. Remove all circumferential dressings to skin
  2. Elevate limb to heart level
  3. Maintain a normal blood pressure
  4. Re-assess after 30 minutes 

Re-assessment at 30 minutes

If clinical signs/symptoms persist there are two options:

  1. Immediate surgical decompression or
  2. Placement of a compartment monitor if not already in place or if the clinician is not convinced by clinical signs/symptoms

Compartment monitors

Indications - Place a compartment monitor into the compartment of concern in patients with high-risk features and the following:

  • Reduced level of consciousness / clinical assessment unreliable
  • Regional anaesthesia has been performed
  • ST4+ not convinced by clinical signs/symptoms

In the MTC we place a compartment monitor routinely in all Tibial fractures and any other injury where there is clinical suspicion of a compartment syndrome.

Surgical decompression


  • A clear clinical diagnosis. A compartment perfusion pressure <30mmHg (diastolic blood pressure compartment pressure) is highly suggestive of the need for surgery and only a consultant may decide to continue monitoring in this situation
  • A compartment pressure >40mmHg with symptoms also requires senior review


  • CS >12 hours of warm ischaemia with nonviable muscle should not routinely undergo fasciotomy. The role of amputation is unclear in this situation and aggressive medical management should be instituted.


Timing - Compartment syndrome is a surgical emergency and surgery should occur within 1 hour of the decision to operate.

Early Plastics involvement – Consider involving a plastic surgeon as soon as the decision to operate is made. Open fascial decompression of all involved compartments, taking into account possible reconstructive options.

Procedure - Excise all necrotic muscle. Document the compartments decompressed.

Lower leg fasciotomies – Perform a two-incision four-compartment decompression

Incomplete lower leg fasciotomies cause significant morbidity. The common reasons are:

  • Identification of the septum dividing the anterior and lateral compartments. This can be avoided by making an initial transverse incision in the fascia overlying the septum, then deliberately opening the anterior and lateral compartments separately, creating a so called “H” incision
  • Incomplete development of the deep posterior compartment release by not deliberately taking the soleus muscle fibres off the posterior tibia. If performed correctly, the neurovascular bundle should be exposed in a fully decompressed deep posterior compartment
  • Fascial incisions are too short and do not cover the entire extent of the fascial compartment, either at the knee or ankle levels 

Re-look – Re-explore at 48 hours (or earlier if indicated)