Whether you’re finally getting into the swing of an exercise routine or you're a seasoned athlete, experiencing a new ache or pain while exercising is a frustrating setback. Oftentimes, injuries will heal on their own over time with rest, but more serious injuries may require medical attention. The sensation of numbness and having a tight calf muscle while running may simply be a sign that the calf muscles are working hard, but it may also be a symptom of a more serious condition called compartment syndrome.
What is Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome?
The exact mechanism of chronic exertional compartment syndrome (CECS) is not fully understood. Most professionals agree that the fascia, or tissue, that encompasses the muscle groups restricts their expansion during exercise. Without adequate room to expand, the pressure within the muscle compartment increases, leading to a decrease in blood flow available for the muscle. Left untreated, this decreased blood flow may permanently damage muscle.
What Are the Symptoms?
CECS typically affects young endurance athletes. The athlete often experiences gradually increasing pain in a specific muscle region, typically in the lower leg, during exertion. The pain is described as aching, squeezing, cramping or tightness that goes away with rest, although not immediately. Oftentimes, the runner is able to describe the time or distance required for symptoms to develop.
How is CECS Diagnosed?
Diagnosis of CECS is accomplished by measuring the pressure within the muscle compartment. Currently, the accepted measurement technique involves inserting a catheter through the skin into the compartment under investigation. The catheter reads the pressure, which is then compared to normal values.
What is the Treatment of CECS?
CECS has conservative and surgical treatment options. Conservative treatment includes running on softer surfaces, using orthotics or more supportive athletic shoes, reducing training volume or cross training, physical therapy and icing the affected area after training. Surgical treatment includes a partial open fasciectomy or a simple fasciotomy. Both procedures loosen the tissue that encompasses the muscle, allowing it to expand during exercise.
What Are Other Causes?
Many other conditions mimic CECS, some with serious consequences. Only a medical professional can make a proper diagnosis. If you're experiencing numbness in your calf while running, seek medical advice in order to rule out an urgent condition. Other causes of numbness in the foot or calf while running may include shin splints, blood clots, nerve entrapment and bone tumors.
- Cochrane Database Syst Rev. Interventions for Preventing Lower Limb Soft-Tissue Injuries in Runners; E.W. Yeung, S.S. Yeung
- Surgery: Diagnosis and Management of Chronic Compartment Syndrome; W.D. Turnipseed
- Sports Med Arthrosc. Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome of the Foot; N. Padhiar, M. Allen, J. B. King
- American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons: Compartment Syndrome
- PubMed Health: Compartment Syndrome
Based in Pittsburgh, Penn., Alandra Greenlee is co-founder of two startups. Using her medical degree, she is dedicated to spreading health and knowledge through digital health. Greenlee specializes in fitness, nutrition and basic health writing. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in microbiology from Michigan State University.