A fasciotomy is an emergency procedure used to treat acute compartment syndrome. Compartment syndrome is when the pressure builds up in a non-compliant osseofascial compartment and causes ischemia leading to muscle and nerve necrosis. It occurs most commonly in the volar compartment of the forearm, deep posterior, or anterior compartment of the leg. It can, however, happen in any closed space where there is muscle surrounded by substantial fascia, i.e., the hand, foot, thigh, or buttock.
Compartment syndrome categorizes as acute or chronic. Acute compartment syndrome often follows high energy trauma, fractures, circumferential burns, crush injuries, or even a tight plaster cast. Chronic compartment syndrome develops with muscular overuse and commonly occurs in the leg of runners or military personnel or the forearm of weightlifters and rowers. Occasionally acute exertional compartment syndrome can be seen after strenuous exertion.
The lower leg is the most frequent site of compartment syndrome and associated fasciotomy. The lower leg anatomically divides into four compartments; anterior, lateral, superficial posterior, and deep posterior.
The anterior compartment of the leg contains:
The lateral compartment contains:
The superficial posterior compartment contains:
The deep posterior compartment contains:
The forearm is the most common site of compartment syndrome in the upper limb. It subdivides into four compartments; superficial volar, deep volar, dorsal compartment, and the mobile wad of Henry. The volar compartments are most commonly affected.
The superficial volar compartment contains:
The deep volar compartment contains:
The dorsal compartment contains:
The mobile wad of Henry contains:
The median and ulnar nerves lie in the volar forearm between the flexor digitorum superficialis and profundus. The radial nerve lies deep to the mobile wad.
Classical features of compartment syndrome are those of ischemia, pain out of proportion to the injury, paraesthesia, pallor, paralysis, and pain on passive movement, especially stretch of the concerned compartment. Two-point discrimination can be useful for determining nerve ischemia. These signs and symptoms can be challenging to assess depending on the conscious level, sensory state, and ability to communicate. In these circumstances, monitoring of compartment pressures can be useful.
Measuring compartment pressures is possible via multiple methods, none of which have robust supporting evidence. No universal agreement exists on indications for emergency fasciotomy. Some institutes operate if the difference between the compartment pressure and diastolic pressure is less than 20 mmHg. While some surgeons operate if a compartment pressure is greater than 30 mmHg with the correlation of clinical signs.
There is no absolute contraindication to performing a fasciotomy. This section will explore the relative contraindications. Every decision to perform an emergency fasciotomy should be made by a senior team member and on a case-by-case basis in the context of the patient and the injury sustained.
The primary relative contraindication to performing a fasciotomy is delayed presentation; if the clinician suspects compartment syndrome of having been present for more than 12 hours, there is a potential risk of reperfusion injury.
One study has demonstrated that fasciotomies performed within 6 hours resulted in almost complete limb function recovery, between 6 and 12 hours normal functional recovery rate was 68%. However, fasciotomies performed after 12 hours resulted in only 8% regaining normal limb function.
Conversely, another more recent study has shown that there is no difference in limb salvage rate when comparing early (<12 hours) to late (>12 hours) fasciotomy. It did demonstrate the infection rate is significantly higher in patients whose fasciotomies were delayed.
In a 2008 study, a cohort of 336 combat patients received 643 fasciotomies (upper and lower limb included). Patients who underwent a delayed fasciotomy had twice the amputation rate and three times the mortality.
These considerations of irreversible nerve and muscle damage and high risk of infection change the risk-benefit analysis in missed compartment syndrome and negate the necessity for emergency surgery.
The procedure can be carried out by any medical professional with the appropriate training. Often this is a surgical resident or attending. They will need direct assistance from a scrub nurse and anesthetist and will need the support of a full theatre team.
A theatre brief is necessary at the start of the theatre session. Before the procedure begins, the surgical team should complete the WHO theater checklist.
For a fasciotomy of the leg, the patient is positioned supine. The leg should be prepped and draped to above the knee.
For a forearm fasciotomy, the patient should be positioned supine with the arm abducted to 90 on a table extension. The patient should then be prepped and draped to above the elbow.
Single-incision fasciotomy of the leg (Davey, Rorabeck and Fowler technique)
Double incision fasciotomy of the leg (Mubarak and Harges technique)
Fasciotomy wound management begins with an inspection at 48 hours. If the compartments are soft, this closure is achievable by primary wound closure, secondary wound healing, or as needed in approximately 50% of wounds split-thickness skin grafting. Delayed primary closure is also feasible using a vessel loop shoelace stitch. A negative pressure wound management device is another option.
Due to muscle necrosis, rhabdomyolysis, and acute renal failure are common; treatment is with intravenous fluids and dialysis.
Incomplete fasciotomies can create a need for a revision fasciotomy either for extension of fascial opening or opening a missed compartment. Compartments are most commonly missed when the anatomy is highly distorted, such as in cases of high energy trauma or patients with previous surgery and scarring. In these patients, the associated mortality increased by four times.
Also, patients who underwent a delayed fasciotomy had twice the amputation rate and three times the mortality. It bears mention that in some cases, even with timely fasciotomies, the affected limb may not regain normal functionality and may result in an amputation.
Early recognition and subsequently early treatment of compartment syndrome with fasciotomies causes a significant decrease in the risk of poor functional outcome, need for amputation, and death.
Additionally, the medico-legal burden of delayed fasciotomies is high; time from onset of the symptoms to fasciotomy directly linked to an increasing pay-out amount in medical negligence claims. Fasciotomy performed early was associated with a successful defense of any medico-legal action.
Early recognition of compartment syndrome is best detected by those professionals who have regular contact with the patients in the ward. These ward staff typically junior doctors, nursing, and health care assistants have the most contact time with patients and are in the best position to detect increasing severity in symptoms. These are the members of staff who need the most training in recognizing compartment syndrome and who need to exercise the high index of suspicion and early escalation to a senior doctor who can initiate early aggressive treatment with fasciotomy. Therefore it is the responsibility of the senior doctors and the department management to ensure the ward staff has adequate training to recognize the symptoms, are familiar with pressure measuring equipment, and feel able to escalate appropriately. This will provide the best method of early detection, to facilitate early treatment and provide the best patient outcomes.
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