Compartment Syndrome: What is it and how might it affect me?

October 12, 2020

Posted by: Claire Withey


Compartment Syndrome is a medical condition which can often affect military Personnel and which, if left undiagnosed or untreated, can have devastating consequences for their military career.

This is the first in a series of blogs which looks at compartment syndrome, how it might arise in the military and when you might be entitled to pursue both a civil and AFCS claim in respect of the condition.

What is Compartment Syndrome?

Compartment syndrome is a painful condition which is caused by bleeding or swelling within an enclosed bundle of muscles, known as a muscle compartment.  It occurs when the pressure within a compartment increases, restricting the blood flow to the area and potentially damaging the muscles and the nearby nerves.  It can be very serious, especially if it is left untreated.

Compartment Syndrome usually occurs in the legs, feet, arms and hands, but it can occur wherever there is an enclosed compartment inside the body.

There are two different types of compartment syndrome:

  1. Acute compartment syndrome, which usually arises as a result of trauma, for example if you suffer a fracture to your leg or arm.  This usually requires urgent treatment to prevent permanent damage to the muscles. In the most serious of cases, a failure to treat can result in the amputation of a limb;
  2. Chronic compartment syndrome.  This happens gradually, over a period of time and it is this type of compartment syndrome which is most likely to affect military personnel.  It does not require urgent treatment, but if left untreated over a period of time it can result in problems and threaten to end an individual’s military career.

What are typical symptoms of Compartment Syndrome?

Symptoms of compartment syndrome vary depending on whether it is acute or chronic, but will typically include:

  • A cramping pain during exercise, most often in the legs;
  • Swelling or visibly bulging muscles;
  • A tingling sensation, similar to pins and needles;
  • The affected area turning pale and cold;
  • In severe cases, difficulty moving the affected body part

In cases of acute compartment syndrome, the pain is likely to be intense and is unlikely to stop when exercise ceases.

When might Compartment Syndrome arise as a result of military service?

Whilst cases of acute compartment syndrome can occur as a result of military service, for example if an individual suffers a serious injury to a limb, it is cases of chronic compartment syndrome which arise most often in the military.  This is because chronic compartment syndrome is particularly common amongst fit, young people and the standard of fitness required when joining the Forces means that almost all recruits will fall into this category.

It often arises as a result of regular, repetitive exercise, which is again very common in the military.  It might therefore arise as a result of regular tabbing, marching or running, which form part of everyday military life.  It may be that you do not have any symptoms initially.  When you do start to get the type of symptoms outlined above, it is likely that they will develop over a period of months or in some cases, years, until the pain and discomfort gets too much and an individual seeks medical attention from their Medical Officer.

Once you have been diagnosed as suffering from compartment syndrome, it may be that conservative treatment, for example the use of orthotics or physiotherapy will resolve the symptoms.  In some cases however, surgery, known as a fasciotomy to release the nerves is required.

When an individual is conservatively managed for too long and symptoms continue or get worse, this may affect the success rates of surgery and in these circumstances an individual may be entitled to bring a claim.  Similarly, if surgery is recommended and there is a delay in carrying out that surgery or the surgery is not carried out correctly, this may give rise to a claim.

There will be further blogs in this series dealing with how you can pursue a claim under the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme (AFCS), or a civil claim when there has been some negligence in respect of the diagnosis or treatment of your compartment syndrome.

In the meantime, if you are suffering from compartment syndrome which is affecting your military service and you would like to seek some advice, please do not hesitate to contact the military team at Bolt Burdon Kemp confidentially and without charge to discuss matters further.

Claire Withey is an associate solicitor at Bolt Burdon Kemp specialising in Military claims.  If you feel you may have a claim or are enquiring on behalf of a loved one, contact Claire free of charge and in confidence on 020 7288 4821 or at clairewithey@boltburdonkemp.co.uk for specialist legal advice.  Alternatively, you can complete this form and one of the solicitors in the Military team will contact you.  You can find out more about the team here.

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Posted by: Claire Withey

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