Compartment Syndrome

Over the years, our firm has had the opportunity to represent countless clients who have suffered life-changing complications following what they thought would be fairly simple surgeries. One of the most devastating complications we have seen is something called compartment syndrome.

Compartment syndrome is a life-threatening condition that occurs when pressure within your muscles builds to dangerous levels. It generally occurs in the arms, legs or abdomen. The increase in pressure in any of these “compartments” of your body decreases the blood flow to that area. Because blood carries oxygen around your body, when there is a decrease in blood flow, there is also a decrease in oxygen getting to your nerve and muscle cells in that area. Compartment syndrome is a medical emergency, which, if untreated, can lead to permanent muscle damage.

Compartment syndrome is most often caused by a traumatic injury or broken bone. We have had clients suffer from compartment syndrome after car accidents, skiing accidents or from injuries while playing other sports.   It can also occur from post-operative infections that are not timely or properly treated.

Compartment syndrome usually crops up after you have been treated and sent home from the doctor’s office of hospital. It maybe hours or days later. The classic sign of compartment syndrome is extreme pain, beyond what you would normally expect from the type of injury you suffered. You might also feel tingling or burning sensations, or the muscle may feel tight.

Unfortunately, sometimes the emergency room doctor or the urgent care physician misses the signs of compartment syndrome and fails to diagnose it in time. The longer the pressure builds up, the more damage it can cause. Doctor’s often attribute the pain to your original injury and they are reluctant to investigate further. They may even assume you are a drug seeker and that you’ve only come back to the emergency room to get more pain pills.

But doctors can, and should, measure the pressure in the area and determine if you have compartment syndrome. It is not a difficult test to perform. If you do have it, emergency surgery is the only treatment. They have to open the skin of the compartment and release the pressure. If they don’t, the pressure continues to build and the tissues continue to die.

The stories we hear from our clients are very simple and almost always the same. The pain was excruciating. The doctor was dismissive. They were sent home. The pain never let up. By the time a doctor took them seriously, it was too late. Patients are left with horrible scarring, nerve damage, and either useless or missing limbs. They are often unable to return to work or do many of the activities they were used to doing. Their lives were changed in a way that could have been avoided if the doctor had done the right thing.

Todd Wahlquist