June 9, 2014

Kevin Gourlay

Occasionally we see clients who have developed a rare condition called compartment syndrome after an injury.  Compartment syndrome can develop following seemingly innocuous injuries, e.g. a broken leg, if improperly treated.  The condition can have devastating consequences, including amputation, and is often described by victims as the worst pain imaginable.

Sports Illustrated recently ran a piece by Joan Niesen on Denver Broncos’ safety Rahim Moore who left a November 18th, 2013 game with what was first believed to be cramps.  That night, “he’d never felt anything so horrible as the burning, searing, throbbing pain that reduced him to tears.”  Fortunately he got immediate emergency surgery to release the pressure in his leg and hopefully will be returning to play this season — as the story notes, any further delay may well have resulted in the loss of his leg.  As it stands he has made a remarkable recovery and is left only with a 13″ scar on his leg.

Ms. Niesen’s story includes a brief description of this dangerous condition:

Compartment syndrome is a rare condition that occurs when pressure builds to extreme levels within muscles. In layman’s terms, swelling occurs, trapping excessive pressure in compartments that we all have in our muscles, which are contained by strong connective tissue called fascia and have a finite amount of room to expand. As blood keeps flowing in and the flow out decreases, pressure mounts, and the surrounding area is deprived of nourishment. Cells die off as the blood flow becomes restricted or cut off entirely, damaging or even killing the affected muscles.

The syndrome occurs in two capacities: chronic and acute. Chronic compartment syndrome is often exercise-induced, leading to increased pain as workouts intensify. The pain subsides once the muscles are no longer being exerted, though damage still builds up. Acute compartment syndrome is another beast entirely. A major injury, such as a broken leg, is usually the culprit; the blunt trauma typically causes pressure to build up quickly and destructively. “That’s a real emergency,” says Rams team physician and president of the NFL Physicians Society Dr. Matthew Matava, who has never treated an instance of compartment syndrome in a football player.


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