Updated: 5/10/2022

Hand & Forearm Compartment Syndrome

Review Topic
Videos / Pods
https://upload.orthobullets.com/topic/1064/images/hand compartment..jpg
  • summary
    • Hand & Forearm Compartment Syndrome are devastating upper extremity conditions where the osseofascial compartment pressure rises to a level that decreases perfusion to the hand or forearm and may lead to irreversible muscle and neurovascular damage.
    • Diagnosis is made with the presence of severe and progressive hand or forearm pain that worsens with passive finger or wrist motion, respectively. Firmness and decreased compressibility of the compartments is often present. Needle compartment pressures are diagnostic in cases of inconclusive physical exam findings and in sedated patients.
    • Treatment is emergent fasciotomies. 
  • Epidemiology
    • Anatomic location
      • May occur anywhere that skeletal muscle is surrounded by fascia, but most commonly
        • leg
        • forearm (details below)
        • hand (details below)
        • foot
        • thigh
        • buttock
        • shoulder
        • paraspinous muscles
  • Etiology
    • Pathophysiology
      • local trauma and soft tissue destruction> bleeding and edema > increased interstitial pressure > vascular occlusion > myoneural ischemia
    • Causes
      • trauma
        • fractures (most common)
          • distal radius fractures in adults
          • supracondylar humerus fracture in children
        • crush injuries
        • contusions
        • gunshot wounds
      • tight casts, dressings, or external wrappings
      • extravasation of IV infusion
      • burns
      • postischemic swelling
      • bleeding disorders
      • arterial injury
  • Anatomy
    • Forearm compartments
      • 3 in total
        • volar
          • most commonly affected
        • dorsal
        • mobile wad (lateral)
          • rarely involved
          • muscles
            • brachioradialis
            • extensor carpi radialis longus
            • extensor carpi radialis brevis
    • Hand compartments
      • 10 in total
        • hypothenar
        • thenar
        • adductor pollicis
        • dorsal interosseous (x4)
        • volar (palmar) interosseous (x3)
  • Presentation
    • Symptoms
      • pain out of proportion to clinical situation is usually first symptom
        • may be absent in cases of nerve damage
        • difficult to assess in
          • polytrauma
          • sedated patients
          • children
    • Physical exam
      • pain w/ passive stretch of fingers
        • most sensitive finding
      • paraesthesia and hypoesthesia
        • indicative of nerve ischemia in affected compartment
      • paralysis
        • late finding
        • full recovery is rare in this case
      • palpable swelling
        • tense hand in intrinsic minus position
          • most consistent clinical finding
      • peripheral pulses absent
        • late finding
        • amputation usually inevitable in this case
  • Evaluation
    • Radiographs
      • obtain to rule-out fracture
    • Compartment pressure measurements
      • indications
        • polytrauma patients
        • patient not alert/unreliable
        • inconclusive physical exam findings
      • relative contraindication
        • unequivocally positive clinical findings should prompt emergent operative intervention without need for compartment measurements
      • threshold for decompression
        • controversial, but generally considered to be
          • within 30 mm Hg of diastolic blood pressure (delta p)
            • intraoperatively, diastolic blood pressure may be decreased from anesthesia
              • if delta p is less than 30 mmHg intraoperatively, check preoperative diastolic pressure and follow postoperatively as intraoperative pressures may be low and misleading
  • Treatment
    • Nonoperative
      • observation
        • indications
          • exam not consistent with compartment syndrome
          • delta p > 30
    • Operative
      • emergent forearm fasciotomies
        • indications
          • clinical presentation consistent with compartment syndrome
          • compartment measurements within 30 mm Hg of diastolic blood pressure (delta p)
            • intraoperatively, diastolic blood pressure may be decreased from anesthesia
              • must compare intra-operative measurement to pre-operative diastolic pressure
      • emergent hand fasciotomies
        • indications
          • clinical presentation consistent with compartment syndrome
          • compartment measurements within 30 mm Hg of diastolic blood pressure (delta p)
            • intraoperatively, diastolic blood pressure may be decreased from anesthesia
              • must compare intra-operative measurement to pre-operative diastolic pressure
  • Techniques
    • Forearm
      • emergent fasciotomies of all involved compartments
        • approach
          • volar incision
            • decompresses volar compartment and carpal tunnel
              • incision starts just radial to FCU at wrist and extends proximally to medial epicondyle
              • may extend distally to release carpal tunnel
          • dorsal incision
            • decompresses mobile wad and dorsal compartment
              • dorsal longitudinal incision 2cm distal to lateral epicondyle toward midline of wrist
        • technique
          • volar incision
            • open lacertus fibrosus and fascia over FCU
            • retract FCU ulnarly, retract FDS radially
            • open fascia over deep muscles of forearm
          • dorsal incision
            • dissect interval between EDC and ECRB
            • decompress mobile wad and dorsal compartment
        • post-operative
          • leave wounds open
            • wound VAC
            • sterile wet-to-dry dressings
          • repeat irrigation and debridement 48-72 hours later
            • debride all dead muscle
            • possible delayed primary wound closure
            • VAC dressing when closure cannot be obtained
              • follow with split-thickness skin grafting at a later time
    • Hand
      • emergent fasciotomies of all involved compartments
        • approach
          • two longitudinal incisions over 2nd and 4th metacarpals
            • decompresses volar/dorsal interossei and adductor compartment
          • longitudinal incision radial side of 1st metacarpal
            • decompresses thenar compartment
          • longitudinal incision over ulnar side of 5th metacarpal
            • decompresses hypothenar compartment
        • technique
          • first volar interosseous and adductor pollicis muscles are decompressed through blunt dissection along ulnar side of 2nd metacarpal
        • post-operative
          • wounds left open until primary closure is possible
            • if primary closure not possible, split-thickness skin grafting is used
  • Complications
    • Volkman's ischemic contracture
      • irreversible muscle contractures in the forearm, wrist and hand that result from muscle necrosis
      • contracture positioning
        • elbow flexion
        • forearm pronation
        • wrist flexion
        • thumb adduction
        • MCP joints in extension
        • IP joints in flexion
      • classification
        • Tsuge Classification (see table below)
          • Tsuge classification (stages & Treatment of Volkman's Ischemic Contracture of Hand)
          • Stage
          • Affected Muscle
          • Treatment
          • Mild
          • Finger flexors
          • Dynamic splinting, tendon lengthening
          • Moderate
          • Wrist and finger flexors
          • Excision of necrotic tissue, median and ulnar neurolysis
            BR to FPL and ECRL to FDP tendon transfers, distal slide of viable flexors
          • Severe
          • Wrist/finger flexors and extensors
          • Same as above (moderate) with possible free muscle transfer
  • Prognosis
    • May lead to
      • loss of function
      • Volkmann ischemic contracture
      • neurologic deficit
      • infection
      • amputation

Please rate this review topic.

You have never rated this topic.

Thank you. You can rate this topic again in 12 months.

Technique Guides (3)
Flashcards (28)
1 of 28
Questions (2)
Question locked
Sorry, this question is for
PEAK Premium Subscribers only
Upgrade to PEAK

(SBQ17SE.14) A 42-year-old construction worker sustains a crush injury to the hand at a job site. He has immediate pain and significant swelling, and is taken to the local emergency department for evaluation. Radiographs do not demonstrate any fracture or dislocation. On exam, he experiences severe pain with passive motion at the metacarpal phalangeal joints and when the wrist is flexed and extended. Otherwise he has intact sensation and appropriate capillary refill. What is the next best step in diagnosis or treatment?

QID: 211259

Advanced imaging



Arterial Doppler



Admission for overnight observation



Surgical intervention



Pain control



L 3 A

Select Answer to see Preferred Response

Evidence (5)
Private Note