Potential Health Hazards of Skinny Jeans

When skinny jeans cause compartment syndrome

Woman putting on jeans
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Skinny jeans may seem sexy to some, but looking svelte might come at a steep price. Specifically, a 35-year-old woman almost needed surgery on her lower legs on account of body damage sustained while wearing a pair of tight jeans.

In a June 2015 issue of the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, researchers present the case of a young woman clad in a pair of skinny jeans who was helping a family member move.

As everyone knows, moving is an arduous task, and after several hours of squatting and emptying cupboards, her feet went numb, and she experienced paralysis of her forefeet (bilateral foot drop).  Unfortunately, this woman experienced these difficulties while walking home; she tripped and fell and wasn't found for hours.

This woman suffered from a condition called compartment syndrome. With compartment syndrome, swelling occurs around muscle, nerves and blood vessels that are enclosed in a thin layer of connective tissue called fascia. The fascia contains the swelling, and the resultant increase in pressure interferes with blood flow, nerve conduction and motor action.

More specifically, this swelling results from some stressor—in this case skinny jeans—occluding normal venous drainage that leads to a back-up in blood circulation. Compartment syndrome can eventually result in muscle breakdown, which was beginning to happen with this lady.

 

Previously, the only documented cases of skinny jeans causing compartment syndrome involved the hips and upper legs. This woman, however, experienced anterior tibial compartment syndrome. (The tibia is a bone in the lower leg.) After hours of pressure caused by skinny jeans, she developed marked swelling in both legs (which was more pronounced on her right).

 

Although this woman's hip and knee power were normal, her ankles and toes became weak, and she could no longer move them. Moreover, all the pressure caused by compartment syndrome interfered with the nerves in her lower leg, and she lost sensation at the sides of her calves and tops of her feet. Fortunately, pulses in her ankles and feet were normal and circulation was still good with her feet still pink and warm.

By the time this woman got to the hospital, her lower leg swelling had become so bad that her jeans needed to be cut off. Although her kidney function was normal, had she been wearing these super skinny jeans much longer, she would have likely clogged her kidneys with products of muscle breakdown and experienced system-wide repercussions (severe rhadbomyolosis). In fact, a CT scan showed evidence of hypoattenuation suggesting that the muscles in her lower leg had already started breaking down (myonecrosis and early rhabdomyolosis).

Fortunately, this woman had a mild case of compartment syndrome.

All she required was intravenous fluids and four days of hospital rest before she was back on her feet. Of note, sometimes compartment syndrome can become dire like with crush injuries. 

More severe compartment syndrome presents with all the following signs and symptoms (the 5 P's):

  • puffiness
  • pallor
  • paralysis
  • pulselessness
  • pain

If the pressure of compartment syndrome is left unrelieved, muscle tissue can die thus leading to muscle contracture, fibrosis and shortening. In order to avoid such dire health consequences, surgeons must relieve the pressure of compartment syndrome by cutting open the fascia (fasciotomy).

It would be a stretch to call this woman’s battle with compartment syndrome a cautionary tale. Unless you regularly do squat thrusts in skinny jeans, you’re probably safe from the resulting pain and disability of compartment syndrome. Nevertheless, the remote possibility that skinny jeans can cause great bodily damage is appreciated by fans of baggy or mom jeans. After all, loose fitting clothing can’t damage the muscles in your legs.

Sources

LeBlond RF, Brown DD, Suneja M, Szot JF. The Spine, Pelvis, and Extremities. In: LeBlond RF, Brown DD, Suneja M, Szot JF. eds. DeGowin’s Diagnostic Examination, 10e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2015.

Thomas BJ, Fu FH, Muller B, Vyas D, Niesen M, Pribaz J, Draenert K. Orthopedic Surgery. In: Brunicardi F, Andersen DK, Billiar TR, Dunn DL, Hunter JG, Matthews JB, Pollock RE. eds. Schwartz's Principles of Surgery, 10e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2014.

Case report titled “Fashion victim: rhabdomyolysis and bilateral peroneal and tibial neuropathies as a result of squatting in ‘skinny jeans’” by K Wai et al published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry in 2015. 

 

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