Can compartment syndrome be misdiagnosed?

Pain in the legs, feet, arms, or hands can occur for many reasons, one of those being the onset of compartment syndrome. This post looks at the causes and symptoms of this ailment, and how easy it may be to miss or confuse for other ailments.

What is compartment syndrome?

Compartment syndrome is a condition which leads to an increase in pressure around certain muscles. It is most common in the lower leg, but can occur in any part of the body where muscles are in a bundle (known as a ‘compartment’).

Doctor examining leg for compartment syndrome symptoms


The condition can cause pain, swelling and even bleeding. As it can restrict the flow of blood and oxygen to muscles and nerves, it presents a danger to the afflicted person that shouldn’t be ignored.

There are two types of compartment syndrome: acute and chronic. The acute type is serious and needs urgent medical attention. It can lead to permanent muscle damage and may be fatal if not treated quickly.

Chronic compartment syndrome is not as serious and will usually pass without urgent medical care. It does not cause permanent damage and will often pass within minutes or when the activity causing it stops.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may vary, depending on the severity of the condition.

Acute compartment syndrome

Symptoms usually develop quickly, often after an injury or trauma. These can include:

  • intense pain (particularly when stretching)
  • tenderness
  • burning or stinging
  • numbness

It is often described as being ‘pain out of proportion to the injury’.

Chronic compartment syndrome

Symptoms usually come on more gradually, intensify with exercise, and then improve during periods of rest. Symptoms may also include:

  • swelling of the muscles
  • cramping
  • tingling
  • paling of the skin (in the affected area)
Person holding leg while experiencing pain


What causes compartment syndrome?  

Acute compartment syndrome is usually caused by physical trauma, like a serious accident or broken bone.

However, it can also sometimes be caused by applying bandages too tightly, too soon (while an injury is still swelling) or because of burns or certain surgeries. It can also occur without any discernible reason.

Chronic compartment syndrome is caused by intense, repetitive exercise such as running or cycling. It usually improves when the person is not exercising.

Diagnosis and misdiagnosis

Compartment syndrome exhibits symptoms reported in other conditions, meaning it is possible to be misdiagnosed.

Misdiagnosed compartment syndrome, late diagnosis or incorrect treatment can result in serious issues, including:

  • permanent muscle or nerve damage
  • loss of limb function
  • infection
  • amputation
  • kidney damage
  • death

Treatments for compartment syndrome

Acute compartment syndrome needs urgent hospital treatment, by way of a surgical procedure called an emergency fasciotomy. This is an incision to the skin and area surrounding the muscles to relieve the pressure inside the muscle compartment.

Chronic compartment syndrome does not usually require hospital treatment, but it may necessitate lifestyle changes. For example, switching to a less strenuous form of exercise if the issue is being caused by physical activity.

Cyclist experiencing leg pain while on a bike ride


What happens if compartment syndrome is misdiagnosed?

If you suspect or know that you have had compartment syndrome and it was misdiagnosed, or negligent surgery led to the onset of the condition, first seek an opinion from a medical professional.

Once a diagnosis is confirmed, you should then look to speak with a legal professional about the possibility of compensation.

A clinical negligence solicitor can confirm whether you have been the victim of medical negligence, if you are in a position to bring a claim for compensation and damages, and what further evidence is needed to support a successful claim.

It is worth bearing in mind that there is a time limit within which you must bring a claim for medical negligence, so it is always important to act quickly.

At Devonshires Claims, our team of experienced clinical negligence solicitors have the knowledge and expertise required to bring a claim for compensation on your behalf.

In addition to helping assess and build your case, we promise to represent you through the process on a ‘no-win, no-fee’ basis, limiting the impact of legal fees on yourself.

Can we help you further?

If you're considering legal action, then lets talk. We can discuss your circumstances and provide you with a free case evaluation to help you determine whether a claim is the best course of action.

Get in touch

Devonshires Claims
Ground Floor
30 Finsbury Circus
Finsbury, London