Fatal Thigh Compartment Syndrome: A Case Report and Review of Literature 

Case Report

Fatal Thigh Compartment Syndrome: A Case Report and Review of Literature

Corresponding author Dr. Xiao-Li Xie, Department of Toxicology, School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, Southern Medical University, No. 1838, Guangzhou 510515, Guangdong Province, PR China,Tel:+862062789132; Fax:+862061648324; E-mail: xiexiaoli1999@126.comDr. Qi Wang,Department of Forensic Medicine, School of Basic Medical Science, Southern Medical University, No. 1838, Guangzhou 510515, Guangdong Province, PR China; Tel:+862062789101;Fax:+862061648359; E-mail:wangqi_legmed@126.com
Compartment syndrome of the thigh is a rare surgical emergency, which is commonly caused by blunt trauma. It is a condition where pressure within an osseofascial compartment of the thigh rises, leading to cellular anoxia, muscle ischemia, and death. The diagnosis of compartment syndromes of the thigh is usually clinical. Since the thigh compartments are larger than those of the forearm and calf, it can accommodate a large volume prior to the manifestation of pathological changes. Compartment syndrome of the thigh has been mostly reported by clinicians. However, there is a lack of knowledge of the histopathological and postmortem biochemical features of thigh compartment syndrome. In this report, we described a 59-year-old man who pulled his right thigh muscles during manual labour, with an acute compartment syndrome occured at the fourth day after the injury, and died on the following day. At autopsy, diffused necrosis and edema of skeletal muscles were found in his right thigh. Histopathological examination revealed hemorrhage and infiltration of neutrophils in his skeletal muscles and connective tissue. Positive immunoreactivity of myoglobin in the granular casts in distal convoluted tubules by immunostaining and marked elevation of serum urea nitrogen, uric acid and creatinine levels were observed.

Keywords: Autopsy case; Thigh compartment syndrome; Immunostaining; Postmortem biochemistry


TCS: Thigh Compartment Syndrome
DVT: Deep Venous Thrombosis
MCT: Mast Cell Tryptase
BUN: Blood Urea Nitrogen
Scr: Serum Creatinine


Compartment syndrome is a surgical emergency that occurs when compartment pressure elevates higher than perfusionpressure [1]. Based on the characteristic of thigh compartment structures, thigh compartment syndrome (TCS) occurs lessfrequently than in the forearm and calf, but associated with high morbidity and mortality. The etiology of TCS is diverse. Cases of TCS have been reported as a result of fracture, vascular lesion, extrinsic compression, contusion after blunt trauma, tumor infiltration, drug-induced and prolonged muscular effort [2-4]. Most cases in literature were published by clinical practitioners, but rarely reported by forensic medical examiners [5]. Therefore, there is a lack of knowledge of the histopathological and postmortem biochemical features of thigh compartment syndrome.Case Report

A59-year-old manual worker pulled the muscles of his right thigh during work. He suffered from persistent pain and went to hospital for treatment immediately, but went home without symptomatic remission on the same day. Four days later he was admitted to the orthopedic ward. The obvious presentation was a hematoma of the right thigh, following progressive skin tenderness in his right iliac region and popliteal fossa. He was kept in bed and treated with improving microcirculation therapy and other supportive treatments.On the following day, the patient suddenly lapsed into unconsciousness without responses. After all rescue measures proved ineffectually, the patient was declared clinical death.A standard legal autopsy was required in order to give a clear conclusion of the cause of death. Several suspects were raised,including acute pulmonary embolism and deep venous thrombosis (DVT) of his right lower limb.

Figure 1. Diffuse skeletal muscles necrosis and edema were found in the right thigh.

At autopsy, highly swollen right knee and thigh, as well as diffused necrosis and edema of skeletal muscles were detected inhis right thigh (Figure 1). Most of the organs were congestive and edematous, where the lungs and kidneys were most pronounced. The victim also had a history of coronary arteriosclerosis with II degree luminal stenosis.

The tissue histopathological test of right thigh muscles showed massive connective tissue necrosis, skeletal muscle fiber swollen and rhabdomyolysis with neutrophilic granulocyte infiltrated (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Massive connective tissue necrosis, skeletal muscle fiber swollen and rhabdomyolysis with neutrophilic granulocyte infiltratedintheright thigh (HE ×100).

Allergy related test of right heart blood sample showed a slight increase of total blood IgE, but not MCT. Blood urea nitrogen(BUN) and serum creatinine (Scr) elevated significantly (Table 1). Intensive positive immunoreactivity of myoglobin was detected in distal convoluted tubules by immunostaining (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Intensive positive immunoreactivity of myoglobin was detected in granular casts in distal convoluted tubules by immunostaining.

Table 1. Postmortem biochemistry results.


On the basis of autopsy findings, especially the muscle necrosis and hematoma in the right thigh by histological results, he was diagnosed as fatal compartment syndrome. Furthermore, intensive positive immunoreactivity of myoglobin in his distalconvoluted tubules and elevated BUN and Scr levels were detected, indicating massive skeletal muscle damage and renalfailure. The cause of death was renal failure.

Two cases of fatal acute compartment syndrome were reported by Zhu et al., demonstrating that both victims died due tomyoglobinuric renal failure on the basis of pathological findings and postmortem biochemical measurements [6].

Uzel et al. reported a case of TCS resulted from muscle contusion, which bring sports-related injuries into the etiology of TCS. They mentioned that muscle injuries can increase cell membrane permeability leading to extravasation of intravascular protein and increased colloid pressure in the interstitial space which promotes a vicious cycle [4]. Increased pressure may aggravate muscle ischemia and edema, accompany with muscle infarction, leading to acidosis, hyperkalemia, myoglobinuria, high level of blood urea nitrogen and serum creatinine, and ultimately develop into renal failure, shock, and cardiac dysrhythmias.

As a rare condition, thigh compartment syndrome generally occurs within hours to days. Wardi et al. described a particularcase of delayed compartment syndrome which the time between injury and symptomatic presentation could be the longest in literature. As the thigh consists of three compartments, which are much larger in size than the forearm and calf, the required degree of pressure elevation to cause thigh compartment syndrome is much higher. Etiologically, muscular hematomas result a slower pressure increase than vascular injuries, which could be the mechanism of the delay compartment syndrome [7]. How et al. also reported a delayed TCS case after blunt trauma and vascular injury occurred in a soccer athlete which highlighted the response of thigh musculature to blunt trauma and vascular injury and the role of vascular study in evaluating thigh hematoma [8].

TCS is more difficult to diagnose due to the atypical five major traditional signs: pain out of proportion, paraesthesia, paralysis,pallor, and pulselessness [9]. According to Knab et al.’s research data, only 50% of the patients were diagnosed within less than 24 hours, and only 40% of the patients were diagnosed based on compartment pressure measurement [1].


TCS is a rare complication of multiple etiologies, which is difficult to diagnose. Practitioners should highly alert to the case of disproportionate painful muscular contusion. Timely compartment pressure measurements and fasciotomy could be the only way to prevent a fatal consequence.


This research was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 81401556) and Guangdong Natural Science Foundation (No. 2014A030310504 and 2014A030310293).


1. L.M. Knab, A. Abuzeid, H. Rodriguez, N. Issa, Thigh compartment syndrome in urban trauma: bullets to blame, not collisions. J Surg Res. 2013, 18(2): 748-752.

2. L. Rohman, S. Chan, S. Hadi, D. Maruszewski, Recurrent spontaneous compartment syndrome of the thigh. BMJ Case Rep. 2014.

3. R. Dahab, C. Barrett, R. Pillay, M. De Matas, Anterior thigh compartment syndrome after prone positioning for lumbosacral fixation. European spine journal : official publication of the European Spine Society, the European Spinal Deformity Society, and the European Section of the Cervical Spine Research Society. 21 Suppl 4 (2012) : 554-556.

4. A.P. Uzel, A. Bulla, S. Henri. Compartment syndrome of the thigh after blunt trauma: a complication not to be ignored. Musculoskelet Surg. 97(1): 81-83.

5. N.I. Ojike, C.S. Roberts, P.V. Giannoudis. Compartment syndrome of the thigh: a systematic review. Injury. 2010,41 (2): 133-136.

6. B.L. Zhu, R. Zhao, R.B. Li, X. Wu, D.W. Guan, et al. Fatal acute compartment syndrome in patients after surgical treatment: 2 case reports. 2009, Leg Med (Tokyo). 11 Suppl 1: S544-545

7. G. Wardi, S. Gortz, B. Snyder. A case of delayed presentation of thigh compartment syndrome, J Emerg Med. 2014, 46: e145-148.

8. M.I. How, P.K. Lee, T.S. Wei, C.T. Chong. Delayed presentation of compartment syndrome of the thigh secondary to quadriceps trauma and vascular injury in a soccer athlete. International journal of surgery case reports. 2015, 11: 56-58.

9. S.C. O’Neill, D.F. Lui, C. Murphy, P.J. Kiely. Lower leg compartment syndrome after appendicectomy. Case reports in orthopedics. 2015.

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