Can Malpractice Cause Compartment Syndrome?


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Each year, an estimated 26,000 Americans are diagnosed with “compartment syndrome,” and most of these cases occur after some sort of trauma. Early treatment is essential, and when a doctor’s negligence delays appropriate treatment, it can force an amputation or even cause death.

What Is Compartment Syndrome?

Compartment syndrome (also called “acute compartment syndrome”) is an excruciating condition that occurs when pressure within a muscle builds to dangerous levels and cuts off the blood supply. This typically happens rapidly, over hours or days. While it’s not always easy to diagnose, some classic symptoms should lead any competent physician to evaluate compartment syndrome.

These symptoms are referred to as the “5 Ps”:

  • Pain
  • Paresthesia (numbness, tingling, “pins and needles”)
  • Pallor (pale skin tone)
  • Pulselessness (faint pulse)
  • Paralysis (extremely weak movements, if movement is possible at all)

The first two of these symptoms, pain, and paresthesia, are the most common initial symptoms. The pain from compartment syndrome is usually described as being extreme and out of proportion to the injury already present in the affected limb. In these cases, pain doesn’t stop and typically continues to get worse as time goes on. Paresthesia is experienced differently depending on the compressed nerve, but some sort of altered sensation is common in the early stages.

The last three symptoms, pallor, pulselessness, and paralysis, are usually only seen in the advanced stages of compartment syndrome. Unfortunately, by the time these symptoms are observed, there’s a good chance that irreversible damage has already occurred within the muscle.

Another rare version of this condition is called “chronic” or “exertional” compartment syndrome. This type is typically not an emergency and is most often seen in people who do regular, repetitive exercise, like running or cycling. It usually develops slowly over days or weeks, usually goes away once the repetitive exercise is stopped, and rarely requires surgical intervention.

What Causes Compartment Syndrome?

All muscles (and most organs in our body) are encased in something called fascia. This thin casing of fibrous connective tissue is responsible for holding groups of muscles, blood vessels, and nerves in place. These fascia-bound bundles are referred to as compartments. Fascia does an excellent job of containing these muscles so they can stay where they belong and function properly, but it doesn’t have much “give” to it. Because of this, any swelling or bleeding within a compartment doesn’t have anywhere to go.

Most compartment syndrome cases happen after a bone is broken but can also occur when a muscle is badly bruised. It can also happen after crush injuries, burns, overly tight bandaging, or blood clots in an arm or leg. Rarely, compartment syndrome can occur after prolonged, excessive compression (usually more than 6 hours) of a particular part of the body during surgery. After any of these injuries, compartment pressure can rise rapidly and prevent blood from flowing to tissues inside the compartment. If the pressure isn’t relieved quickly, severe tissue damage can result, or even death. 

How Is Compartment Syndrome Treated?

Acute compartment syndrome is an actual medical emergency and must be treated immediately. The standard treatment is an operation called a fasciotomy, which is when a surgeon cuts all the way down through the muscle compartment’s cover (the fascia) to relieve the swelling and pressure. This incision can be quite large depending on which compartment is affected (or if multiple compartments are involved). Surgical release of compartment pressure has a success rate of 30-100 percent depending upon which compartment is affected and how early it’s diagnosed and treated.

What Happens When Treatment Is Delayed?

Unfortunately, due to its rarity and the fact that it’s a painful condition that typically presents when you’re already in pain from another injury, compartment syndrome can be challenging to diagnose in its very early stages. This can have devastating consequences because permanent muscle and nerve damage can occur if compartment pressure is not released within a few hours. Any numbness, tingling, weakness, or excessive pain after an injury is grounds to evaluate compartment syndrome. Sometimes, medications given for an injury can mask the pain of compartment syndrome, making it even more crucial to identify the other symptoms as soon as they present.

If surgery isn’t performed soon enough, or if the procedure is unsuccessful in relieving the pressure from all affected compartments, loss of limb function, permanently shortened muscles in the affected limb, amputation, kidney failure, sepsis, or even death can occur. 

I Think a Doctor Was Negligent. What Can I Do?

When someone develops compartment syndrome, and medical professionals ignore or brush off symptoms, the consequences can quickly become life-threatening. If you feel that a doctor ignored your symptoms and did not evaluate for compartment syndrome early enough, then you may be entitled to compensation.

When filing a claim for medical malpractice, the most difficult part is proving that the “standard of care” wasn’t met. This is proven by consulting with other medical professionals to determine what they would have done in the exact same situation. Because the details surrounding your hospital stay can become lost or forgotten over time, it’s essential to file your claim as soon as possible. Pennsylvania has a two-year statute of limitations in situations like these, so bringing your case to a qualified legal team as early as possible is essential to make sure your claim can be proved.

Why Choose Ross Feller Casey?

When it comes to medical malpractice cases, the legal team at Ross Feller Casey has the experience and resources needed to get you the compensation you deserve. If you or your loved one has been seriously injured as a result of compartment syndrome and you think that a doctor’s negligence contributed to the severity of your injury, then we’re here to help.

With over 50 $10-million-plus verdicts and settlements, we’ve shown that if medical malpractice has occurred, we’ll do everything in our power to prove it. Contact us today for a free consultation. You won’t pay anything unless we win your case, so don’t delay.

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