The Clinical Diagnosis of Compartment Syndrome of the Lower Leg: Are Clinical Findings Predictive of the Disorder?

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ObjectiveTo assess whether published studies support basing the diagnosis of compartment syndrome of the lower leg on clinical findings.Data SourcesA MEDLINE search of the English literature from 1966 to 2001 was performed using “compartment syndromes” as the subject. A manual search of the bibliographies of retrieved articles and of major orthopaedic texts was also performed.Study Selection and ExtractionOf 1,932 titles identified, 433 abstracts of potential relevance were reviewed, and 104 articles from relevant abstracts were examined in their entirety. Four studies met all eligibility criteria. Criteria for inclusion included the following: (a) target population, traumatic or iatrogenic tibia injuries; (b) diagnostic test, presence of data needed to calculate both the sensitivity and specificity of clinical findings; (c) outcome, the presence or absence of compartment syndrome; and (d) methodologic criteria, prospective study design.Data SynthesisThe likelihood ratio form of Bayes' theorem was used to assess the discriminatory ability of the clinical findings as tests for the compartment syndrome.ConclusionsThere are limited data from which to define the usefulness of clinical findings for the diagnosis of compartment syndrome. Data from eligible studies suggest that the sensitivity of clinical findings for diagnosing compartment syndrome is low (13% to 19%). The positive predictive value of the clinical findings was 11% to 15%, and the specificity and negative predictive value were each 97% to 98%. These findings suggest that the clinical features of compartment syndrome of the lower leg are more useful by their absence in excluding the diagnosis than they are when present in confirming the diagnosis. Likelihood ratio calculations found that the probability of compartment syndrome with one clinical finding was approximately 25%, and the probability was 93% with 3 clinical findings present. However, these findings are based on limited information; because of the paucity of data available, the predictive value of the clinical findings for the diagnosis of compartment syndrome has yet to be defined.

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