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Muscles, nerves and blood vessels are grouped forming compartments. These tissues are surrounded by fascia which aim to keep them in place, in order to do this the fascia is not easily stretched. Compartment syndrome describes the build-up of pressure within the muscles potentially decreasing blood flow.
In the lower leg there are four main muscle compartments, the most likely location of compartment syndrome is in the front compartment but it can occur in other compartments in the leg, as well as in the arms, hands, feet, and buttocks. When there is bleeding or swelling in the muscle this causes a build-up in pressure. As this pressure affects the blood flow within the muscle, and with it essential oxygen and nutrients, damage can be caused to muscle and nerve cells.
Compartment syndrome can occur acutely, following a severe injury like a broken bone or bad bruising. In this situation the build-up in pressure is extremely dangerous and surgery to release the pressure is the only treatment. With exertional lower limb pain the pain will be greater than would be expected from the injury itself, there may also be a burning sensation.
Chronic compartment syndrome is less serious and is often found in people who carry out repetitive motions such as running or cycling. This can cause cramping and/or pain during exercise, although this usually stops with the end of activity. In some cases compartment syndrome occurs from exercising on certain surfaces such as AstroTurf, switching surfaces may relieve the symptoms. Other treatments include physiotherapy, shoe inserts and anti-inflammatory medicine. Often rest from the activity causing the pain is the best treatment.