What Is Compartment Syndrome?

What Is Compartment Syndrome?

Aches and pains are almost unavoidable with frequent exercise, but sometimes those aches and pains can mean a more serious problem. While you don’t need to obsess over what each pain means, it’s a good idea to be aware of some of the more serious injuries that can creep up on you if you’re not paying attention. Compartment syndrome is one of those conditions. Let’s take a look at what it is so it doesn’t surprise you in the future.

What is Compartment Syndrome?

A basic muscle anatomy lesson is needed to understand Compartment Syndrome.  Each group of muscles, called a compartment, is surrounded by inflexible connective tissue known as fascia. When a traumatic injury or another cause for swelling occurs, pressure builds within the fascia and muscles and leads to damaged nerves and muscle cells. by starving them of oxygen. Serious cases can lead to a lack of blood flow to the area and permanent damage. 

Acute v.s. Chronic Compartment Syndrome

There are two types of this condition and the one one that needs immediate attention is acute Compartment Syndrome, which occurs right after a major incident. In this case, a surgeon would need to perform an emergency procedure known as a fasciotomy to relieve pressure in the compartment. Situations that might result in acute injury could be:
  • Car accidents 
  • Being physically crushed by an object 
  • Bone fractures 
  • Surgery 
  • Anabolic steroids 
  • Overly tight bandages 
Fortunately, many of these circumstances don’t happen often and acute pressure can be fixed with a surgical operation. 
Chronic, or exertional Compartment Syndrome, though, is much more subtle and symptoms can fly under the radar. Affected areas include hands, forearms, upper arms, buttocks, legs and feet. The most commonly affected area is the shin. Activities that require repetitive movements carry the most risk. Some examples are:
  • Biking 
  • Hiking 
  • Running 
  • Swimming 
  • Tennis 
Properly resting after feeling pain with these activities will save you the stress of dealing with the more severe problems of chronic Compartment Syndrome. Though, the symptoms to look out for include:
  • Visible swelling  
  • Numbness 
  • Unresolved pain or cramping
  • Tightness 
  • A burning or tingling sensation 
  • Weakness 


Fitness culture will often encourage people to “toughen up” or “feel the burn” while exercising, but there is a big difference between working out with some soreness and working out with real pain. There are plenty of ways to help prevent this condition, but one of the best ways is to simply listen to your body and its limits. It’s especially vital as we get older and muscles lose some of their strength. And of course, it’s always a good idea to talk with your doctor and keep them informed about anything unusual you might be feeling. 
Besides that, here are some recommendations for preventing Compartment Syndrome:
  • Wear proper shoes 
  • Fix body alignment with insoles. This article talks about the risks of compartment syndrome associated with having flat feet without proper support. 
  • Avoid running on hard surfaces
  • Alternate your gait, the way you run or walk 
  • Warm-up beforehand. Find the right dynamic stretching warmup for your activity. Here is one ideal for runners
  • Avoid overtraining 
  • Improve flexibility. Static stretching is essential for this
  • Build endurance gradually 
  • Practice proper technique within a sport 
  • Incorporate different kinds of exercise 
  • Rest in-between workouts 
To prevent acute Compartment Syndrome, common-sense safety measures should be taken in life and/or your job. 
  • Use your seatbelt
  • Make sure your car’s airbag is working 
  • Use protective equipment when needed and follow safety measures closely 


If chronic symptoms persist even after taking adequate breaks and following prevention advice, there are a few options to consider depending on how severe they are. These include:
  • Anti-inflammatory medications 
  • Surgery (for the chronic condition as well) 
  • Physical therapy 
  • Icing the area frequently 
Although Compartment Syndrome is considered rare, recurring pain, swelling and other symptoms should never be ignored. Addressing any problems with your doctor as soon as possible can save you the headaches of having to take time out from the activities you love!
Back to blog