Beware of Injuries: Compartment Syndrome

Running is not a high contact sport in terms of bodies colliding and trying to smash each other into the groun
d in order to maintain or gain possession of an object. It is a contact sport in terms of bones and muscles colliding with other bodily stuff that cause pain and discomfort among runners. I am no different in that regard.

My main injury of sport is shin splints. Shin splints are caused by repeated stress to the shinbone and the muscles surrounding it. Generally, the pain runs up and down the shinbone and there may be some notable soreness and perhaps inflammation. For most, rest and ice can help a runner get back on their feet without much else. For me, shin splints are one indication that I am in need of new running shoes.

I suffer from shin splints a couple times a year but there was one time, prior to my running adventures, when I thought I had shin splints and I actually had something more serious. When I was 16 I found out I had compartment syndrome. Now, compartment syndrome is normally found in athletes who are college aged and participate in sports like cross country, not high school softball players.

Compartment syndrome is a problem that can be found in the lower extremities. Basically, there is a thin layer of fascia that surround your muscles. As you exercise, your muscles get warm which causes them to expand. You fascia is supposed to expand as well. When your fascia doesn’t expand, it constricts the muscles and in doing that, constricts the arteries leading to your legs. All of this constricting results in numbness in your legs and feet.

I was working out with the basketball team when I found out that I had compartment syndrome. We were going on 3 mile runs once a week and by the time we got done, I had zero control over my feet. It was like they were flopping around and I had to really focus and watch where my feet were going to make sure they were underneath me. And it was super painful. I talked to the athletic trainer at my school and after checking my legs before and after the pain, he suggested I go see a doctor. I saw my physician who sent me to an orthopedic doctor who sent me to an orthopedic surgeon.

Three minutes in the room with the surgeon and he already knew I would need surgery. We still had to go through the process of checking the pressure in my legs. The procedure to the test went like this:

  • Using two really small needles, they stuck me in two of the four compartments of my legs.
  • We waited for my legs to go numb from the needles.
  • The doctors checked the pressure in my legs by using a larger “knitting needle” (as described by my mom since I refused to watch) in my leg to see what the pressure was.
  • I walked around until I felt the pain and numbness in my legs as I normally did when exercising.
  • They used the large needles again to see what the pressure was.

For those of you who are interested, normally, your legs have an internal pressure of 0-5 (I don’t remember the units) and after you have done exercise, it should be between 5-20. The pressure in my legs was 20 to begin with and after exercise it was around 30. That meant I was headed for surgery.

Being the active person I was, along with the fact that I had never had surgery before, I didn’t know what to expect with recovery or anything. I had already formed the idea that I would be doing something exercise related in college, whether that was physical education or exercise science. This huge life moment made me consider other careers because I didn’t know how this was going to affect me. Would I be able to run still? Would I be able to be pain free while exercising. I thought it would be pointless to be in the fitness spectrum of jobs if I wasn’t actually able to be fit myself. I was very close to becoming an engineer. I didn’t change anything though. I thought I would give it time before I made a big decision like that. And I’m glad I did.

The surgery went very well. I now have four scars on each leg, about 2 inches long. They had to cut the fascia in two of the four compartments of my leg from my knee to my ankle but were able to do it arthroscopically. I spent all of winter break that year on the couch recovering. Although it was surgery on both legs, I only had crutches to get around. My family was very helpful in their attempts to keep me occupied and involved in our holiday adventures, rearranging our traditions so that I could participate. They also played a large role in just helping me get around the house safely.

I came back much stronger and faster than they thought I would. I was blowing my physical therapist away with how much I could handle and how fast I wanted to do things. I was running on a treadmill within 2 months of surgery. My main motivation was that I wanted to get ready for softball season. Missing out on basketball season was one thing but I needed to be back with my softball team. Once softball began, my coach was taking some precautions. I wasn’t on varsity and it wasn’t my senior year so I was fine with my new role as designated hitter. I had a career high 2 home runs that season.

This year is the 10 year anniversary of my surgery. I can’t believe it has been that long. I am proud to say I am fully recovered and am in better shape than I was before surgery (and my scars are still pretty cool looking). I get a little worried each time I start to feel the familiar pain of shin splints, hoping it is just that and nothing worse. After all, there are two other compartments that didn’t get released. This is just one of the few injuries I have sustained during my life and shaped my character of being injury-prone.
Stay tuned for more fun stories on injuries!

One thought on “Beware of Injuries: Compartment Syndrome

  1. Pingback: How did I get here? – Brittany Deas

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