A systematic review of fasciotomy in chronic exertional compartment syndrome

J Vasc Surg. 2020 Nov;72(5):1802-1812. doi: 10.1016/j.jvs.2020.05.030. Epub 2020 May 27.


Background: Chronic exertional compartment syndrome (CECS) is an overuse injury typically seen in young and athletic patients. The five cardinal symptoms are pain, tightness, cramping, weakness, and paresthesia. These classically occur during exertion and disappear with cessation of the activity, with no permanent damage to tissues within the compartment; nonetheless, CECS presents a significant functional impairment to those affected. Regulating exercise has been shown to alleviate symptoms, but this may not be acceptable to some patients (eg, professional athletes). For patients who fail to respond to conservative management or where exercise reduction is unrealistic, fasciotomy can be considered. There are no established guidelines on the management of CECS, and it remains underdiagnosed. The aim of this systematic review was to compare the outcomes of patients suffering from CECS managed with either fasciotomy or nonoperative means by examining functional outcomes and resolution of symptoms.

Methods: MEDLINE and Embase databases and clinical trial registries were searched comprehensively; 219 articles were identified, and 14 articles were included in the systematic review. Given the heterogeneity between the studies in terms of outcomes reported, a qualitative synthesis was performed.

Results: The majority of included studies were retrospective cohort studies, with a single prospective cohort study. Studies included fasciotomies performed in the upper and lower limbs. The population of patients included military servicemen, motocross racers, and unselected patients. There is insufficient evidence in the literature to support conservative or surgical management over the other in the management of CECS. However, fasciotomy appears to be a safe approach, with satisfaction rates of 48% to 94%. Complications related to the fasciotomy included hematomas (2.7%-22.5%), nerve injuries (2.0%-18.6%), deep venous thrombosis (2.7%), and symptom recurrence (0.65%-8.4%). Up to 10.4% of patients required revision fasciotomy.

Conclusions: There is no consensus on the optimal management of CECS and, as yet, no established international guidelines on treatment. This systematic review suggests that fasciotomy could be a safe and viable option in the management of patients suffering from CECS, with promising long-term results. Future research in the form of randomized controlled trials comparing conservative and surgical management would be beneficial.

Keywords: Anterior tibial compartment syndrome; Athletic injury; Chronic exertional compartment syndrome; Fasciotomy; Overuse injury.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome / surgery*
  • Fasciotomy*
  • Humans
  • Patient Satisfaction
  • Recovery of Function
  • Recurrence
  • Treatment Outcome