Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome

In the world of sports medicine, chronic exertional compartment syndrome is most common in the lower legs and is often observed in soccer players, skiers, basketball players, long-distance runners, as well as collegiate and competitive athletes. While it is initially thought to be a form of shin splints, the condition can occur in any compartment of the extremities. You should know that CECS is not a life-threatening condition and does not lead to long-term damage, provided that the individual seeks appropriate treatment. Oftentimes, one who tries to exercise despite pain can find the experience rather difficult, especially if severe numbness or weakness is present.

Understanding the Causes of Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome

Currently, the underlying causes of CECS are not completely understood. However, one can keep in mind that it is usually associated with increased pressure within a muscle compartment. This can happen after intense physical exertion. During your exercise routines, increased blood flow to used muscles will cause them to expand. This allows pressure to build up in that compartment. Over time, that pressure may cut off some of the muscle’s blood supply.

There are researchers out there that suggest biomechanics might have a role in causing chronic exertional compartment syndrome. In addition, possible causes may include venous hypertension, inelastic or thick fascia that surrounds a section of muscle, and enlarged muscles.

Here are some of the factors that can increase an individual’s risk of developing CECS:

  • Overtraining without ample rest: You can raise your risk of CECS by working out too frequently or intensely without adequate rest.
  • Choice of exercise: Fast walking, running, and other reptitive impact activity do increase the risk of CECS development.
  • Age: The condition is pretty common in both male and female athletes under 30. Howeer, people of any age can develop the condition.

What are the Symptoms of CECS?

If you are experiencing one or more of the following signs and symptoms, there is a possibility of you having chronic exertional compartment syndrome. Here’s what you need to look out for:

  • Burning sensation
  • Cramping pain
  • Constant aching
  • Tightness
  • Tingling sensation
  • Numbness
  • Weakness
  • Foot drop
  • Occasional bulging or swelling (could be a result of muscle hernia)

You may also experience pain from CECS that follows this pattern:

  • When you exercise using the affected limb, you can begin to experience discomfort or pain after a certain intensity of exertion, distance, time, etc.
  • The pain worsens in a progressive manner as you exercise.
  • The pain seems to subside within 10 or 20 minutes after you have decided to stop the activity.
  • You noticed that the recovery time after exercise increases.
  • You took a complete break from exercise and perform only low-impact activity. That helped to relieve your symptoms. However, that is only temporary because all those familiar symptoms usually come back when you resume your sport.

When to See a Doctor

You should consult your doctor immediately if you experience unusual soreness, loss of sensation, weakness, swelling, and pain after participating in your usual sports activities. There are currently two ways to treat CECS: non-operative and surgery. The former involves your doctor recommending pain medications, as well as strengthening and stretching regimens. The latter is the most effective treatment of CECS and helps most people. However, it is not without risk. The inelastic tissue that encases each muscle compartment will be operated and complications may occur, causing scarring, numbness, nerve damage, or infection.

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