The muscles and neurovascular structures of limbs are separated into closed noncompliant osteofascial compartments by tough unyielding fascia that limit the ability for volume expansion.
Blood supply to the structures within the compartment depends on the difference between the arterial and venous pressure (pressure gradient) and the local vascular resistance.
Any decrease in the arterial pressure or increase in venous pressure reduces the pressure gradient.
Increase in local vascular resistance decreases the blood flow.
When the blood flow cannot meet the metabolic demand of the tissues, first the function ceases, if not corrected the tissue undergoes necrosis.
Compartment syndrome develops when increase in the hydrostatic pressure within the compartment decreases the perfusion pressure, that results in cellular hypoxia, tissue ischemia, myoneural damage, muscle necrosis, permanent disability, loss of limb or even death.
Acute compartment syndrome (ACS) is a dreaded complication of musculoskeletal injuries.
Incidence is 3.1 per 100,000 population in the western world.
Male to female ratio is 10:1.
Age is the strongest factor with ACS being most common in the 2ndand 3rddecades.
Most common site is the leg, followed by the forearm.
ACS develops in 11.5% of tibial diaphyseal fractures.
First described by Richard von Volkmann in 1869 in the forearm. He described the sequelae and the causative factors in 1881.
Bardenheuer first described fasciotomy as treatment in 1906.
Rowland attributed raised intracompartmental pressure as the cause of ischemia and its sequelae.
Management of ACS first described by Petersen in 1888.
Myerson described compartment syndrome of the foot in 1987. (Myerson 1987)
Cause may be fractures, soft tissue trauma, bleeding, extravasation or external compression.
Up to 30% of cases occur without fracture.
Causes may be divided into exogenous or endogenous.
Endogenous causes are hemorrhage, edema or perivascular infusions which increase in the volume of contents within the compartment.
Exogenous causes may be constricting casts, prolonged lithotomy positioning, drunken stupor, tight dressing etc.
Constricting casts or dressings
Bleeding disorders including anticoagulant therapy
Accidental extravasation of infusions or drugs such as Propofol, Iohexol etc.
Lithotomy positioning during surgery
Normal interstitial pressure is 8mm of mercury in adults and 10-15mm Hg in children.
Trauma leads to inflammation which leads to vasodilation and increased capillary permeability resulting in edema which increases interstitial pressure leading to increased venous capillary pressure. The decreased perfusion pressure leads to ischemia which causes further tissue damage creating a vicious cycle with positive feedback loop.
Ischemia leads to hypoxia and depletion of intracellular energy stores. Anaerobic metabolic pathways are activated to compensate leading to acidosis. Further reduction in the ATP production leads to shut down of sodium-potassium ATPase channels that maintain the cellular polarity and osmotic balance. Loss of cellular polarity leads to influx of chloride ions and cellular swelling. Increased cytosolic calcium accumulation causes lysosomal enzyme release and cell lysis.
Cell lysis releases intracellular toxins, leading to microvascular damage, inflammation, increased capillary permeability, capillary leakage and increased intra-compartmental pressure.
Ischemia of one hour can lead to neuropraxia and axonotmesis can start developing by 4 hours. Irreversible changes start appearing by 6 hours.
Edema is due to increased capillary permeability secondary to injury or reperfusion.
Vicious Cycle of pathogenesis
Compartment syndrome should be suspected in awake patients with unrelenting and increasing pain not responding to standard dose of analgesics, pain on passive stretch, paresthesia and paresis.
Classically the symptoms are described as 5 P’s.
Griffiths described the 4 P’s in 1948; pain, pain on stretch, paresthesia and paresis (Griffiths 1948). Pulselessness and pallor were added later.
The classically described pulselessness is absent as the systolic blood pressure usually remains above the compartment pressure even in the late stages.
Pain which is persistent and increasing is the earliest and most common sign.
Pain on passive stretching of involved muscles is the most sensitive sign.
In the leg, anterior compartment is most commonly involved followed by the lateral compartment.
In children, the presentation is by 3 A’s
Analgesic need that continuously rises
Compartment syndrome should be ruled out in unconscious patients with persistent tachycardia if there is no other cause or hypotension.
Risk factors that increase the likelihood of ACS are high velocity injury, systemic hypotension, younger age and obtunded patients.
Multiple injury patients with hypotension and hypoxia are more susceptible to compartment syndrome.
Other injuries more susceptible to compartment syndrome are vascular injuries with peripheral ischemia, high velocity injuries, crush injuries, and comminuted proximal tibial fractures.
Patients on anticoagulants are at high risk of ACS after injury.
More common in the young due to relatively thick and inelastic fascia.
Age between 12-29 years is the strongest predictor for ACS.
Fractures of the tibia and fibula are 4 times more likely develop in comparison to all other fractures.
36% of cases are due to tibial shaft fractures followed by soft tissue injury (23%), distal end radius #s (10%), forearm diaphyseal #s (8%) and crush syndrome (8%). (McQueen 2000)
Diagnosis may be made by clinical examination or by measurement of compartment pressure or tissue oxygenation.
Diagnosis is unconscious patients’ needs compartment pressure monitoring.
Compartment pressure measurement by infusion technique was described by Whitesides in 1974 (Whitesides 1974).
Compartment pressure measurement techniques
Whitesides infusion technique
Matsen’s continuous infusion and monitoring technique
Mubarak wick catheter technique
Fine wire transducer technique
Weiner fibro-optic transducer tip catheter technique
Arterial line transducers with side-port needles, slit catheters and self contained measuring systems are most accurate. (Keudell 2015)
Monitoring of ICP by slit catheter technique has a sensitivity of 94% and specificity of 98% when pressure gradient (∆P) of 30mm Hg is used for diagnosis.
Compartment Pressure Measuring Technique
Compartment pressure should be measured within 5 cm of the fracture and pressure within all 4 compartments of the leg should be measured.
Proper technique which includes proper positioning of the catheter within the compartment, proper setup of devices, proper zeroing is essential for correct measurement of intra-compartmental pressure. Otherwise catastrophic errors are likely.
The landmarks for insertion of needle for compartment pressure measurement are as follows.
Superficial posterior compartment- In the posterior midline of calf.
Deep posterior compartment- 1 cm posterior to posteromedial border of tibia.
Anterior compartment- 2 cm lateral to the tibial crest.
Lateral compartment- Directly over the fibula.
Diagnosis is made if the difference between compartment pressure and diastolic pressure (∆P) is less than 30mm (McQueen 1996) or if the intra-compartmental pressure is above 30mm of Hg (Whitesides 1975).
Recently 35% false positive rate was reported when compartmental pulse pressure of <30mm Hg on single measurement was used in patients with acute fractures with no clinical evidence of compartment syndrome. (Whitney 2014)
Timely diagnosis and dermatofasciotomy is essential to ensure optimum outcomes.
Initial treatment consists of removal of circumferential dressings and elevation of the limb to the level of heart.
The limb should not be elevated in impending compartment syndrome as it further reduces pressure gradient.
Techniques of fasciotomy
Percutaneous fasciotomy is contraindicated in trauma patients
Techniques of dermatofasciotomy
Mubarak’s 2-incision, 4-compartment fasciotomy
Matsen’s parafibular 4-compartment fasciotomy
Fibulectomy-fasciotomy is contraindicated in trauma patients.
Mubarak’s 2-incision, 4-compartment fasciotomy of leg
Medial incision for release of deep and superficial posterior compartments made 2 cm posterior to the posteromedial border of tibia. Incise from proximal tibia to the musculotendinous junction of Achilles tendon. Protect saphenous nerve and vein. Incise fascia to release superficial posterior compartment. Elevate the soleus from the medial border of tibia to expose the deep posterior compartment and release the fascia.
Lateral incision for release of anterior and lateral compartments made 2 cm anterior to the fibular head. Incise from fibular head to the distal fibula Protect superficial peroneal nerve distally. Elevate the anterior flap. Incise fascia to release anterior compartment anterior to the anterior intermuscular septum. Elevate the posterior flap, incise the fascia along the posterior border of fibula to release the lateral compartment.
Matsen’s parafibular dermatofasciotomy.
After fasciotomy, the viability of the muscle should be ascertained by the 4 C’s: Color, Consistency, Contractility and Capacity to bleed.
The wound left open and spring sutures placed to progressively close the wound.
Patient returned to operation theatre at 48 hours to reassess the wound.
Fasciotomy increases the duration of hospital stay, escalates the costs, increases the chance of infection and interferes with fracture healing.
Recently the need for release of all four compartments in all patients have been questioned and an algorithmic approach consisting of selective release of compartments have been put forward. (Tornetta 2016)
Tornetta 2016 algorithm advises measurement of diastolic BP preoperatively, measurement of ICP, fasciotomy of anterior and lateral compartments, measurement of ICP of posterior compartments and medial incision if the pressure difference with diastolic BP (∆P) is less than 30mm Hg and to avoid release if ∆P is more than 30mm Hg. Close post-operative monitoring by clinical examination every 2 hours is necessary. They did not recommend this algorithm in centres with no facility to monitor the intracompartmental pressure in the post-operative period.
Delayed or missed diagnosis may lead to complications such as renal failure, ischemic contractures and limb loss.
Cause of delayed or missed diagnosis
Unconscious or inebriated patients
Regional or general anesthesia
Soft tissue injuries
Over-reliance on clinical symptoms and signs
Complications of delayed or missed diagnosis
Muscle necrosis and contractures
Permanent neurological deficit
The side effects or complications of fasciotomy are muscle weakness, chronic venous insufficiency, adherent scars, impaired sensation, ulceration, increases in duration of hospitalization and costs and the delay in definitive treatment.
Newer diagnostic tools include the following.
Near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) uses differential light reflection and absorption characteristics to estimate the proportion of hemoglobin saturated with oxygen 2-3 cm below the skin. It is currently FDA approved for noninvasive continuous monitoring of pressure in the intracranial and somatic tissues. Skin pigmentation and thickness of subcutaneous fat may interfere with NIRS.
Radio-frequency identification implants are minimally invasive devices with sensors to measure pressure, oxygenation etc. that are microfabricated into silicon substrate. It uses RFID technology to transmit the data collected.
Newer methods to reduce pressure
Methods to decrease intramuscular pressure
Anti-inflammatory drugs like indomethacin
Ultrafiltration catheters as treatment- Tissue ultrafiltration by insertion of small diameter hollow fibers into the compartment, connected to suction to remove interstitial fluid to reduce compartment pressure.
Decompression by dorsal skin fenestration or pie crusting in compartment syndrome of foot.
Improving tissue oxygenation
Free radical scavengers
Small-volume resuscitation with hypertonic saline.
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