What Is Compartment Syndrome?

“Compartment syndrome is a painful condition that occurs when pressure within the muscles builds to dangerous levels. This pressure can decrease blood flow, which prevents nourishment and oxygen from reaching nerve and muscle cells.” (1)

There are two types of compartment syndrome: acute and chronic. (2)

Acute Compartment Syndrome

Acute compartment syndrome comes on suddenly and “is usually caused by a severe injury” (3) and a specific traumatic event. (4)

Acute compartment syndrome is an emergency. You need to seek medical attention immediately, just as you would if you had been in a car accident.

The pain can be intense. Muscle pressure can reach dangerous levels. If you do not get the right treatment right away, you can suffer from permanent muscle damage. (5)

Roughly 7.3 out of 100,000 men get acute compartment syndrome. Fewer than 1 in 100,000 women generally develop the syndrome. (6)

Acute Causes

Certain types of injuries can result in acute compartment syndrome. These include fractures, a badly bruised muscle, crush injuries, or even constricting bandages. (7)

The most common cause of acute compartment syndrome is a tibial shaft fracture. This type of fracture accounts for anywhere from 1% to 10% of acute compartment syndrome incidents. (8)

Chronic Compartment Syndrome

Chronic compartment syndrome is also known as exertional compartment syndrome. This type of compartment syndrome is usually caused by athletic exertion. Generally, it is not a medical emergency. (9)

Chronic Causes

Chronic compartment syndrome typically comes about after repetitive and intense exercise. Changing your exercise routine and giving your body time to rest and recover may be all you need to do to stop the pain. (10)

Exercises you do all the time can lead to chronic compartment syndrome. Examples include running, swimming, and biking. (11)

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Compartment Syndrome Symptoms

Acute compartment syndrome happens suddenly, so you will probably know something is wrong right away.

With either type, you can expect to notice these types of symptoms: (12)

  • Bulging or visible swelling of the muscle.
  • Muscle pain is worse than you would expect from your injury.
  • Severe pain when you stretch your muscle.
  • Feeling like the muscle is swollen or somehow larger than normal.
  • Numbness.
  • Tightness in the muscle.
  • Tingling or burning sensation in or under your skin.

Diagnosing and Treating Compartment Syndrome

When you go for treatment, doctors examine the area bothering you. If doctors suspect you have compartment syndrome — either acute or chronic — they probably perform an X-ray and may conduct a compartment pressure measurement test. (13) (14)

Doctors must “focus on reducing the dangerous pressure” in the affected part of your body. Any dressings, casts, or splints constricting the body part must be removed. (15)

If you have acute compartment syndrome, you probably need “immediate surgery to reduce the compartment pressure.”

Supportive treatments may include: (16)

  • Keeping the affected body part below the level of your heart to improve blood flow.
  • Receiving supplemental oxygen through your nose or mouth.
  • Receiving intravenous fluids.
  • Taking pain medications.

Complications from Misdiagnosis

If your doctor does not diagnose and appropriately treat your acute compartment syndrome quickly, you could experience long-term neuromuscular deficits or even death. (17)

Neuromuscular Deficits

Neuromuscular deficits or disorders “affect the nerves that control voluntary muscles and the nerves that communicate sensory information back to the brain. Nerve cells (neurons) send and receive electrical messages to and from the body to help control voluntary muscles.” (18)

When “neurons become unhealthy or die, communication between the nervous system and muscles breaks down. As a result, muscles weaken and waste away (atrophy).” (19)

Death Is Possible

With lower extremity compartment syndrome, death is possible. The potential for “devastating morbidity” is very real. (20)

Increasing pressure within a specific part of the body can be incredibly dangerous. Blood vessels can collapse. Cells and tissue can die. Accumulating fluids and swelling only make everything worse. (21)


The longer you go without receiving appropriate treatment, the worse the possible outcome. Untreated compartment syndrome can lead to serious long-term consequences. Complications include kidney injury, sepsis, foot drop, chronic pain, and amputation. Severe cases can lead to death. (22)

“A missed diagnosis of compartment syndrome is important because of direct morbidity to the patient and because it creates a high-risk medical-legal environment for the provider.” (23) Acute compartment syndrome is “associated with significant medicolegal risk.” (24)

“In fact, 23% of medicolegal cases are due to misdiagnosis.” And roughly 32% of cases are due to a delay in definitive and appropriate treatment. (25)

When Is Misdiagnosis of Compartment Syndrome Medical Malpractice?

Misdiagnosis on its own is not medical malpractice. But if a doctor fails to meet the standard of care in diagnosing your condition, and the failure to diagnose/misdiagnosis caused an actual injury, it can fall under medical malpractice.

For example, if the doctors perform all the diagnostic tests necessary, and the tests do not indicate you have compartment syndrome, a misdiagnosis might not be their fault.

However, if the doctors do not run the necessary tests to show you have compartment syndrome, and you had a severe fracture, they might be responsible for a misdiagnosis.

Did a doctor fail to properly diagnose your compartment syndrome? Speak to an experienced attorney today for a free consultation.

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Hiring a Lawyer or Filing a Lawsuit

First and foremost, you need to contact a reputable attorney who specializes in handling medical malpractice cases. Just as important, you need an attorney licensed in the state where the incident occurred.

Medical malpractice is recognized across the country, but each state has its own specific laws affecting any compensation you might deserve.

If your medical malpractice incident occurred in New York, hire a New York attorney. Make sure the firm is reliable, credible, and solid — like Weitz & Luxenberg.

Ask around. Make some calls. Check out our firm’s history of winning and our overall record.

Once you confirm W&L is the right firm for you, let us do the hard part of handling all of the legal complexities. Look to us for guidance and trust us to help you navigate every step, including the initial filing of your lawsuit.

We work with you to get your medical records, review the skills and performance of the doctors and hospitals that treated you, and determine their potential liability.

How W&L Can Help

Weitz & Luxenberg is a well-known national law firm. We have been handling medical malpractice, personal injury, and wrongful death lawsuits for more than 30 years. We are based in Manhattan and we know New York law inside and out.

Over the years, we have won more than $19 billion in verdicts and settlements on behalf of our clients. Our attorneys have a solid history of winning cases:

Here are several examples:

  • $2.35 million settlement — A young woman reported to a hospital with symptoms of pancreatitis, but she was misdiagnosed and released. Her symptoms continued to worsen, and she went to a different hospital the next day. She was ignored for hours. During that time, she developed sepsis and lapsed into a coma. She died the next day.
  • $2.2 million settlement — A woman in her 30s underwent a tonsillectomy. Within a couple weeks, she went to the Emergency Room (ER) complaining she could not swallow and her throat hurt. The ER misdiagnosed her, provided inappropriate treatment, and released her.
  • $1.1 million settlement — An older man died because his doctor failed to inform him he had colon cancer when it was first detected at stage I. By the time the man learned of his condition and began treatment, the cancer was advanced. Our client died of complications.