Background: Serial physical examination is recommended for patients for whom there is a high index of suspicion for compartment syndrome. This examination is more difficult when performed on an obtunded patient and relies on the sensitivity of manual palpation to detect compartment firmness—a direct manifestation of increased intracompartmental pressure. This study was performed to establish the sensitivity of manual palpation for detecting critical pressure elevations in the leg compartments most frequently involved in clinical compartment syndrome.
Methods: Reproducible, sustained elevation of intracompartmental pressure was established in fresh cadaver leg specimens. Pressures tested included 20 and 40 mm Hg (negative controls) and 60 and 80 mm Hg (considered to be consistent with a compartment syndrome). Each leg served as an internal control, with three compartments having a noncritical pressure elevation. Orthopaedic residents and faculty were individually invited to manually palpate the leg with a known compartment pressure and to answer the following questions: (1) Is there a compartment syndrome? (2) In which compartment or compartments do you believe the pressure is elevated, if at all? (3) Describe your examination findings as soft, compressible, or firm.
Results: When a true-positive result was considered to be the correct detection of an elevation of intracompartmental pressures and correct identification of the compartment with the elevated pressure, the sensitivity of manual palpation was 24%, the specificity was 55%, the positive predictive value was 19%, and the negative predictive value was 63%. With increasing intracompartmental pressure, fasciotomy was recommended with a higher frequency (19% when the pressure was 20 mm Hg, 28% when it was 40 mm Hg, 50% when it was 60 mm Hg, and 60% when it was 80 mm Hg). When a true-positive result of manual palpation was considered to be an appropriate recommendation of fasciotomy, regardless of the ability of the examiner to correctly localize the compartment with the critical pressure elevation, the sensitivity was 54%,the specificity was 76%, the positive predictive value was 70%, and the negative predictive value was 63%.
Conclusions: Manual detection of compartment firmness associated with critical elevations in intracompartmentalpressure is poor.