In the wake of a freak accident earlier this month that resulted in the amputation of former CNN correspondent Miles O'Brien's left arm, many people are wondering what exactly compartment syndrome is — and could it happen to them?

'While my concern was already growing, the look on his face when he saw my forearm got me a little more nervous.'

O'Brien, an award-winning science journalist, was stacking cases of TV gear after a shoot when one proceeded to slip and fall onto his arm. As the 54-year-old tells it, the injury wasn't a 9-1-1 moment, just a painful injury. A little more than 24 hours later, however, things turned worse — with his left arm becoming swollen and increasingly painful. O'Brien was taken to a hospital in the Philippines where the look on his doctor's face confirmed to him that this was a serious injury

"He had me admitted to the hospital," he writes on his blog. "Over the next few hours, I endured probably the longest, most painful experience I could ever imagine. My forearm developed some dusky discoloration, but more alarming was the numbness. I could not feel my forearm!"

What is compartment syndrome? 

O'Brien's doctor suspected that the case striking his forearm had resulted in something called acute compartment syndrome. Basically, the organs and muscles throughout our body are divided into compartments, with each enclosed by webs of connective tissue called fascia. When O'Brien's arm was hit, it caused damage to his muscles that resulted in inflammation and a build-up of bodily fluids. As fascia does not easily expand, the fluids pressing upon it can reduce blood loss to the damaged compartment, resulting in severe tissue damage — or in O'Brien's case, death of the actual compartment itself. 

What's can be done to stop the building pressure?

Once it's evident that the pressure is not decreasing on its own, doctors will immediately place a patient in surgery for something called a fasciotomy. This process involves making long cuts along the fascia surrounding the compartment to relieve pressure. Unfortunately for O'Brien, the damage done to the compartment in his arm was already quite severe. As he tells it, things got worse once he was on the table. 

"When I lost blood pressure during the surgery due to the complications of compartment syndrome, the doctor made a real-time call and amputated my arm just above the elbow," he writes. He later told me it all boiled down to a choice … between a life and a limb."

What's next for O'Brien?

Miles now enters the difficult aftermath of acclimating to the loss of a limb, a task he's taking in stride and with understanding for why his doctor was forced to make the hard decision. 

"It’s been a challenging week dealing with the phantom pain, the vicissitudes of daily life with one hand and the worries about what lies ahead," he writes. "But I am alive and I’m grateful for that. Please don’t worry about me. I’m sure I can cope just fine. If I need your help, I promise I will ask."

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Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.

What is compartment syndrome?
Miles O'Brien had his arm amputated after a freak accident, but how did a falling suitcase turn into a 'life or limb' situation?