My Compartment Syndrome Journey

Today marks exactly four years since my surgery for compartment syndrome. It seems like so long ago that I was that scared little 15-year old unsure if I would ever be the runner I used to be. I’ve come so far since then and am such a different person (and runner) than I was.

DSC_9843

I hope that this post might help out some people that have/had compartment syndrome and provide some insight. I know that all I wanted to hear when I was in the midst of my injury was that everything was going to be okay. Compartment syndrome isn’t all that common, so finding information on recovery (specifically for runners) was pretty difficult. If I can just help one person out then it would be worth sharing my story.

What is Compartment Syndrome?

Compartment syndrome occurs when the pressure inside the muscle becomes too high. This causes decreased blood flow, which can lead to nerve problems, cramping, and just a lot of pain in general. There are two types of compartment syndrome – acute and chronic. The acute type occurs after a traumatic injury while chronic exertional compartment syndrome (CECS), which is what I had, is from exercise.

It all began…

Catamount race 006

a picture from that race

after my very first cross-country race of my sophomore year. I ran a fantastic race – course PR, first for my team. Everything was going great and I was excited for the rest of my season. The morning after the race I knew something was up, though. I got out of bed and tried to walk around, but my calves just felt like rocks. They were so tight and crampy. The simple motion of trying to push off when walking hurt.  I had experienced sore calves after races before, but never like this. It wasn’t the normal achy sore, but something different.

Nonetheless, I got through that week. I still went to my running practice and got through the workouts. It hurt when I ran, but wasn’t awful. My race had been on a Saturday, so the really bad soreness was gone by Tuesday. I saw my physical therapist later that week to ask for some advice. I told her about how tight my calves had been, but that they didn’t hurt very much anymore. She gave me a calf massage and we made an appointment for the next Monday. I had another race that upcoming Saturday, so we were hoping the symptoms would still be present for the Monday appointment.

My next race went the same. I felt fine during it (I ran pretty well too), but the next day my calves were so tight and sore I could hardly walk. When I went in for my Monday appointment she asked me to lay on my stomach on the table. She immediately noticed something that I hadn’t – the swelling. As my mom described it, “Your calves just looked like balloons.” My normal toned runner’s calves didn’t have any definition because they were so swollen. Plus, they were riddled with muscle knots.

The word “compartment syndrome” was thrown around, but wasn’t suspected because my symptoms weren’t the classic compartment syndrome case. I didn’t have any tingling/numbness, no foot drop/weakness, and my pain didn’t begin a few minutes after exercise. My pain began the day after my race, but exercise would make it worse. My pain was also in my calves, not in the front near my shins. Apparently anterior/lateral compartment syndrome is much more common than posterior.

Catamount race 007

Anyways, I kind of limped through the rest of my season. My calves didn’t get a lot worse, but they definitely didn’t get better. The best way I can describe the pain is that burning feeling everyone gets when they’re running up a big hill, except that’s how they felt all the time. Even if I was just doing a light jog they felt like they were about to explode. My calves would be really sore for a few days after my race, then I would go to PT on Monday, and then would be somewhat better until my next race. It was hard to get the right workouts in because of the pain and my confidence went down. To be honest, I was kind of relieved when I got the flu a couple days before states and my mom wouldn’t let me go to school. My performance just kept getting worse and I didn’t have much motivation left.

I took a few weeks completely off after cross-country. The intense pain was gone, but I noticed that when I would do longer walks (from one end of my school to the other) my calves would start to ache. Just standing during concert choir would make my calves burn. When I started training again for indoor track, the pain came right back. I decided that I needed to figure this thing out because I did not want to survive another season like cross-country.

My mom had heard from someone about this nurse practitioner that was supposedly pretty good with sports injuries, so we waited the three weeks for the appointment. Well, I had the worst experience I had ever had with a health care professional. She literally spent all of 10 minutes with me. I told her about my pain, she had me get up and do a few things like stand on my tiptoes. She then proceeded to tell me that “running hurts” and talk about her own experience doing Ironman triathlons and whatnot. No, I did not have decades of experience under my belt, but I had been running since I was in elementary school and had already dealt with shin splints and piriformis syndrome. I at least knew enough about running to understand the pain! She did not know me and shouldn’t have come to conclusions about me. She told me that she was pretty busy at the moment, but maybe by the end of the week she could contact someone to do the compartment testing. I spent the whole ride home crying. I was so embarrassed and hurt.

Aqua jogging was pretty boring, but at least I was getting a workout in.

Aqua jogging was pretty boring, but at least I was getting a workout in.

In the meantime, I had been going to a gym with a pool to try to aquajog. This did not cause a lot of pain, but still hurt a bit. I found that the elliptical and bike were too painful, so I resorted to the pool. An athletic trainer at the gym heard about my awful experience and was nice enough to call over to another doctors’ office and get me in that same day. Thank you! From there, I got an MRI (which did not show anything) and the compartment testing.

Diagnosing

Compartment testing basically involves sticking needles into the different muscle compartments of the lower leg to measure the pressure, then having you run on a treadmill until the pain starts, and measuring the pressure all over again. I had heard horror stories, but it really wasn’t that bad. My legs were numbed with local anesthetic, so that I could barely feel the big needle. I just sensed some pressure on my leg and then a kind of “pop” as it went through the fascia into the muscle. Once it was through, then it started to hurt, but not too much.

The needle used to measure the pressure

Before running, numbers in the teens are considered worrisome and numbers above 30 are not good afterwards. My numbers were mostly in the teens with a couple in the 20’s beforehand. After the test, some numbers were only in the teens, most in the 30’s, and one got up to 70. The compartment that read 70 was the last to be tested, so it had a lot of time to come back down. The fact that it still read so high was not good.

Based on the test, it was determined that I had compartment syndrome. My appointment with the surgeon was a couple weeks later, and my surgery was scheduled shortly after. There are other types of treatment for compartment syndrome, but most have shown questionable success. The fact that I had already completely avoided running and still had pain just walking/standing made my family and I decide to go ahead with the surgery.

I was so sick of playing the waiting game by this time. I remember counting down the days between each of my appointments. In high school, the sport seasons are so short. Waiting so long for answers was just excruciating. During this time I became pretty depressed. I had such a strong identity as an athlete that I felt kind of lost. Looking back I feel kind of silly for getting so down about it, but I guess it’s all about perspective. When I finally found out that I had compartment syndrome I just felt relieved. I wasn’t making it up and I could finally move forward to try and treat it.

The Surgery

Overall, it wasn’t that bad. I opted to be put out for the surgery, but now I kind of wish I had stayed awake. I think it would’ve been kind of cool. Once I woke up afterwards I was even able to walk to the bathroom on my own. The first few days post-surgery went fine besides getting sick from the pain medicine (bleh!).

haha, I look ridiculous!

haha, I look ridiculous! pre-surgery

post-surgery. a little out of it...

post-surgery. A little out of it…

My right leg started to hurt around day 6-ish I think. I had been able to kind of walk on both legs with the crutches, but started to only use my left leg because my right one hurt. A few days later it had gotten worse and now I had quite a bit of bruising on my right leg and couldn’t straighten it out all the way. After a trip to the ER we found out that I had developed a hematoma (bleeding) from the surgery.

normal leg

normal leg

CIMG3642

NOT normal leg

other normal scars

other normal scar

CIMG3644

I started PT after this with an awesome new physical therapist. Things started to get better after that. The hematoma slowly went away and after a few weeks (now 3.5 weeks post-surgery) I was able to walk without crutches with only a slight limp. Almost exactly a month post-surgery I started running again! From there I was actually able to start running with my track team (now outdoor track) again on their warm ups, then full practices, and then competition!

The Long Road

It took me almost a full year post-surgery until I would consider myself back to the shape I was in before I got compartment syndrome. Sure, I PR-ed in the 800 that track season, but there was no way I could’ve PR-ed in anything longer. I think this was partly because I developed some annoying shin splints that hampered my training for a couple months. My next cross season did not go very well, but during indoor I started hitting the times I had got my freshman year. I finally became better than I had been pre-compartment syndrome my senior year cross-country season. I didn’t have any injuries to slow me down and I really cranked up my training. I was PR-ing all over the place and finally reached my goal of breaking 20 minutes in the 5k.

IMG_0213

New Normal

I find it hard to compare running now to before I had compartment syndrome. I definitely don’t have the awful pain I used to have, but I would be lying if I said that things were perfect. After all, my calves started acting up last week when I was doing intervals. The best way I can describe it is that things are just different. I have to pay attention to my calves more. Occasionally (like once a month) they’ll get abnormally tight. However, if I just take  a few days easy and use the foam roller then I’ll be back to normal again.

The type of training I do now also suits my calves better. I’ve been trying out longer distance races, which don’t seem to bother my calves as much. I find that shorter speed intervals (200’s and 400’s) can really get them flared up, but marathon training doesn’t involve much of that, so it suits me much better! I also have given up on wearing my spikes for races. Those really can bother my calves. I’d rather run a slightly slower time than be sore for days after. However, most of my races are now road races, so I don’t need them anyways.

My scars not very noticeable anymore. After surgery they were obviously red, then became a purply color, and then turned white probably a year later. I put athletic tape over them when I would be in the sun for the first year. This helped them to heal better and not get damaged from the sun. I definitely noticed some people staring at my scars once in a while, but hardly anyone ever notices them now. I don’t mind my scars. In fact, I think they look pretty badass!

my scars now!

my scars now!

Overall, things are pretty great. I’ve been able to get my mileage up way higher than I was able to in high school and it’s fun watching myself improve and try out new types of races. The surgery was definitely worth it for me. I haven’t had a serious injury in 3.5 years (knock on wood) and I’m just enjoying my running.

summer track meet

Another Blog

My friend Sarah also has a blog where she’s shared her whole journey with compartment syndrome. She had the surgery just a couple months after me by the same surgeon. I connected with her through her blog and she later became my cross-country coach. Now we meet up regularly to run together. She’s pretty awesome, so you should go check her blog out!

If anyone has any questions/comments about compartment syndrome or my experience feel free to comment down below!

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37 thoughts on “My Compartment Syndrome Journey

  1. This was awesome and so helpful! I am 16 and I run a little bit and I play basketball. since march of 2016 my feet have been falling asleep every time i would run so i recently went to the doctors for the second time about my pain and they want me to get tested for compartment syndrome. The doctor is very confident that i have it and reading your story has helped a lot because I’m very nervous about it.

  2. Awesome story and I am so glad to hear that your story had a happy ending compared to so many bad stories I’ve read. You let those of us going through it know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I am 7 weeks post-op for my second leg and 13 weeks with the first. I spent a long time dealing with the pain and having so many people tell my I was over doing it or that it was all in my head. Finally got the right doctor who said it was compartment syndrome, did the testing and my pressure readings were 30 to 45 at rest and then jumped up to 75 after 10 minutes walking on the treadmill. My first leg seemed to heal quickly, I was able to walk on it right afterwards, swelling went down within a few weeks, and I was jogging at 4 weeks post-op. The second leg is giving me a run for my money. 7 weeks post-op and I’m fighting the swelling, I spend most my time laying down and elevating it, range of motion in the ankle isn’t great, but they finally let me start walking last week and jogging this week. No pain in either legs, no pins and needle feeling and no numbness. The bruising in both legs were bad, my feet were black and blue. Here’s to hoping the swelling will go down soon. I’m looking forward to moving again and not feel pain just walking across the house. I wish you all the best in your future runs!!

    • Hi Deanna! Glad that you found the story helpful. I know, it’s difficult finding information about how people do longterm after surgery – specifically with runners. Sorry that you had such a difficult time getting diagnosed. It seems that most people with compartment syndrome go through either being misdiagnosed or people not believing us. I wish you all the best in your future runs as well! How are you doing now? and sorry for the late response!

  3. Laurel,

    Thank you for sharing your story about chronic exertional compartment syndrome (CECS). My 13-year old daughter was diagnosed with bilateral CECS in all four compartments. Knowing how critical it is to find an experienced surgeon for this condition, can you share with me the name of your surgeon and his or her location?

    • Hi Jeff. Sorry about the very late response! I haven’t been blogging as much lately, but I’ll make sure to log back in more often since this post still gets attention. I’m glad that you found my story helpful. My surgeon was Dr. Slauterbeck at the UVM Medical Center. How is your daughter doing? Has she already gotten the surgery?

  4. Hi, Thank you for sharing this. My son who is a runner and loves running, has had pain in his calf since the middle of XC season last fall. After several visits to the sports dr., the dr. now believes it to be the Compartment Syndrome. He’ll be having the needle/gauge test to confirm. I’ll have him read this to help put his mind at ease, he’s 15 and nervous about surgery, but wants to keep running, so if it gets to that point we will most likely elect the surgery, but thank you so much for sharing your experience.

      • Hello! My son is now 3 weeks post op, just had his stitches removed yesterday matter of fact. He’s doing well, disappointed he missed out on track season and most likely will not be able to participate in cross country in the fall-which he prefers. He should be good to go for track season next year. Glad he got the surgery done, just wish we figured out the problem sooner. Thank you! 😉

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  6. Hi Laurel, Thank you for sharing your story. I am a high school runner and will be getting pressure testing for suspected CECS soon. The pain, tightness, and numbness in my calves has been really affecting my training, racing, and confidence (just as it did to yours). If I do in fact have CECS, I’m really nervous and scared for what my future in running will be post surgery. I have huge aspirations to run in and beyond college and I’m extremely nervous that I am going to have problems for the rest of my life or not be able to reach my full potential because of this. According to the doctor I’m seeing, CS is fairly common and I will be able to fully recover. However, a lot of what I have read on the internet isn’t confirming that (maybe I should be staying off the internet). Do you know more about Kara Goucher’s story or that of any other professional runners? I raced your old HS team last weekend!! 🙂

    • Hi there, I’m sorry that you’ve been dealing with this. I totally understand about feeling nervous and scared about your future as a runner. Unfortunately, compartment syndrome isn’t a quick fix. High school is such a short time period and in the moment it can seem so important. It sounds like you are really interested in running past high school, though, which is awesome. The good thing is that you have your entire life to keep running. If anything, just try not to get bogged down in the moment and be patient (I know, easier said than done).

      If it helps, I can tell you that I personally know three other runners pretty well that have had CECS. Two of them have not just gotten back to their previous fitness, but have well exceeded their previous PR’s. I guess I should include myself in that group as I PR’ed in every event that I ran before CECS. I’ve also tried new distances like the half marathon and full marathon, which has been pretty cool. The other person I know who had the surgery is only a few months past surgery, but he’s already back running and racing as well.

      I’m now at the point (and have been for awhile) where I think of myself as a runner… not a runner with CECS. I forget about my injury and barely ever think about it unless someone comments on my scars. Although my calves aren’t perfect, they’re definitely doable. Once in a while my right calf will flare up and get crampy, but it’s not a big deal for me now. Don’t expect perfection if you end up getting the surgery, but expect things to be much better.

      Yeah, I would stay away from the internet if I were you. I remember spending hours reading up on the injury before my surgery and although there were some good stories of people recovering, there were plenty of bad ones. I think this is because of the people that are writing on those threads. I mean, think about it. The only time I ever look up info about an injury is when things aren’t going well for me. After I recover from the injury I don’t go back to a thread and share my success. I only go on there when I’m having difficulties. I think that’s why a lot of threads are pretty negative.

      I actually don’t know much about Kara’s story with CECS actually. I’ve tried researching about it, but she hasn’t talked much about it. I guess that’s a good thing, though, as it shows that it hasn’t been holding her back. I remember reading about a professional nordic skier that made it to the Olympics after having CECS, but I can’t remember their name. I guess it is a pretty uncommon injury.

      Oh, did you run Thetford last weekend? The weather looked absolutely horrible that day. It must’ve been a mud pit, haha. Yeah, I definitely don’t miss Thetford. I swear that race had a bad weather curse. Anyways, good luck getting this figured out! I’d love it if you could update me on how your recovery goes and please don’t hesitate to ask me any more questions. I love helping people out.

  7. Hi Laurel,
    Definitely interesting to read about your experience with CECS. How many compartments did you have released, and what did your rehab program look like? I had my faciotomy about two weeks ago and just started PT, only problem is she has never dealt with this before so would be helpful to know from someone who has been through it as I can’t wait to go back to proper training!
    Thanks
    Sanna

    • Hi Sanna! I had all four compartments released on both legs. My rehab program was probably a bit different than most because I developed a hematoma in my right leg post surgery. This caused my leg to atrophy and I couldn’t straighten it out all the way. At first rehab mainly involved increasing my range of motion because of the complication. At first manually, but then also by going on the bike. Probably three weeks later I could walk on both legs with the use of crutches (with a limp) and then without crutches. During this time we also worked on improving my balance and general leg/hip/core strength. A little over a month post surgery I ran for the first time – all of 5 minutes! woot! From there I gradually got back into running. I actually found one of the most helpful things to be biking. Once I got on the bike I really noticed my recovery to speed up. Biking was also a great way for me to improve my fitness without weight-bearing.

      I hope that helps! Good luck getting back to training and let me know if you have any more questions. 🙂

    • Thanks so much, Hutch! I felt a little weird writing about such a personal story, but it’s worth it if it can help others. I’m glad to have crossed running paths with you as well! 🙂

  8. Hi Laurel! I’m a freshman in college and I was recently diagnosed with Compartment Syndrome in my posterior (and I’m pretty sure its in the superficial compartment but I’m not sure. My surgeon didn’t explain it very well, but he only tested me on one side of my leg) and I’m suppose to have surgery next Tuesday. I’m an extremely competitive runner and I’m really scared about what this surgery could do to my upcoming cross country season (in three months). You said that it took you about a year to get back to where you once were, do you think that is a common time frame for all runners? Also, do you have any tricks or tips for my post surgery that might be handy? Thank you so much for creating your blog, it really helped with some insight about what I should expect, but oh my goodness words can’t describe how scared I am right now that this could ruin my cross season! Thank you so much!
    Leah

    • Hi Leah,
      I’m sorry to hear that you’re having to deal with compartment syndrome, but am happy that I might be able to provide some advice. I totally understand about being scared and nervous for what to expect. It’s no fun dealing with it, but if you’re in a place like I was it just wasn’t possible to run successfully with CS. The pain was too much to be able to train well and just killed my confidence. There wasn’t a way for me to run like I wanted to with CS. Although things aren’t perfect now, they are a million times better than they were. I’ve now run a marathon, which is something I never would’ve been able to do pre-surgery.

      As far as recovery goes, I was able to start running about a month after surgery (very slowly) and 4 months post-surgery I somehow PR’ed in the 800. As long as you have a good base going into surgery I do believe the recovery can go pretty rapidly. I had issues with my following cross season, but that’s because I developed shin splints and my training suffered. It was because I was in the wrong shoes – after struggling for 5+ months with shinsplints I changed to a neutral shoe and the injury went away within a week… figures. Realistically, I wouldn’t expect to PR during your next cross season, but never say never. Anything can happen! and everyone is different.

      Tips and tricks post-surgery… I would definitely suggest trying to keep up core strength while recovering. Legs might not be ready, but you can always work on strengthening the foundation. I would also suggest getting in to see a good PT soon after surgery – maybe give a week of recovering before going in to see a PT. That way they get it, you know? Mine was a runner and was really good about understanding how quickly I wanted to get back to running. Also, although you might be in some pain, moving is good. I found that gentle biking a few weeks post-surgery to be extremely helpful. My recovery really started to pick up after that.

      Although it’s hard, try to be patient with yourself. Having surgery is a big deal and your body will be trying it’s best to recover as quickly as possible. You will get back to the shape you were in and probably improve upon that shape. I definitely did, and I personally know two other runners that improved as well that had CS. Also, do you know Kara Goucher? She had CS and look at her now! You’re still really young and have so many more years to keep on running. Although the now seems so important (I felt that same way), try your best to be patient.

      Sorry, that kind of turned into a novel. Please let me know if you have any more questions/comments. Also, I would love if you let me know how your surgery/recovery goes! You’ll do great. 🙂

      • Laurel! Hi again haha, I was going through my email inbox and ran across this! I just wanted to give a quick update! So I had my surgery almost 10 months ago and the road to recovery has been kind of rocky. I didn’t have enough time to recover and train to run super well in my cross season, and I’ve decided to redshirt my track season and focus on getting back to training consistently. I also wanted to just thank you, because there’s not many CECS stories out there that runners can really relate to and you helped to lower so much anxiety and stress I had before my surgery. I’m just hoping that I can start running well (PR’ing, I mean) within the next couple of months as cross country starts up. But, thank you again for everything! I hope your running and life endeavors are going well! 🙂

        Sincerely,
        Leah

        • Hi Leah, thanks so much for the update! It sounds like you made the right decision to redshirt track and focus on recovering. I remember how frustrated I got trying to get back to running. The initial recovery of getting off crutches and getting back to running went pretty rapidly, but getting back to previous times was more difficult. I’m sure things will keep going in the right direction for you. You’re probably sick of hearing this, but Just keep being patient. Glad that you found my post helpful! You’re right, there aren’t many stories of runners with CECS out there or else they’ll be along the lines of getting CECS, getting surgery, and then switching sports so it’s hard to tell how recovery would’ve gone. Anyways, good luck again with your running! Thanks for the update!

  9. I cannot imagine you’re physical AND mental pain during this! Cross country is a sport you get so attached to and I think it’s because it’s a sport that puts you in the spotlight and you get that individual attention and glory and then the race itself is an incredible and extraordinary experience and the list of reasons why XC is amazing is ceaseless– but anyway, the fact that Xc is such a thrilling sport just makes an injury so hard to deal with mentally. I had to aqua jog for a few weeks and boy did I grow to hate that. Pools are meant for swimming, NOT jogging. It was a dreary period of my life and I hated watching my team PR and there I was on crutches….I am so glad you didn’t just “accept” you’re syndrome and quit Xc. Too many athletes “accept” their problems and they just completely give up on sport. You, you worked with it and you run !!!! That’s so inspiring.

    • XC is definitely a pretty amazing sport – it’s hard to put it into words. I completely agree with the whole aqua jogging thing. Pools are meant for swimming, not running, haha! Too true! What injury did you have? I definitely couldn’t just accept my syndrome. Running is so special and probably my true passion in life. Thanks so much for your kind words!

  10. I can definitely identify with some of your feelings in this. I played competitive softball from 6th grade to the 10th grade. It was the only sport that I really felt I was good at. Being a catcher was my favorite- and there were days I was catching all 7 innings of the game. My knees hated me. I was in pain constantly, but I loved playing so much that I did whatever I had to to keep playing. My knees took such a beating that the lateral ligaments actually pulled my kneecap to the side. It looked like it was dislocated. I couldn’t practice running bases anymore, and i was getting taped every day by the athletic trainer. Finally, I had surgery to fix it. I was told that I couldn’t be a catcher anymore though, so I just decided to “retire” playing softball since I couldn’t do what I loved. But now that it’s been 3 years since the surgery and I’ve lost so much weight, it doesn’t hurt to run and i’m so happy I made the decision to have surgery. Otherwise I would never be a half marathoner! So happy things worked out for you too!

    • Sounds like you’ve been through quite a lot! Do catchers oftentimes get lots of knee injuries? It seems like they would take quite a beating. I’m glad the surgery was a success for you and that you have found another love – running!

  11. Thank you for sharing this! What an amazing journey – kudos to you for staying so positive and for bouning back from such a serious injury. I’m glad that you still enjoy your running – that’s the most important thing!

      • I couldn’t agree more! I think many runners overlook this part in their training, their racing, their life in general. I run simply and most importantly because of love it. As you say, if I don’t enjoy it, what’s the point? Also, if you do’t enjoy it, you won’t want to keep doing it!

  12. WOW, like always u have just the best outlook of anyone I know – delighted all went well – long scar – long needle- what are the chances it can reoccur? Aunt Pat

    • Thanks so much, Aunt Pat! I don’t think that it can actually occur. I’ve heard of some different cases where it has reoccured, but those people did not get all of their compartments released.

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