What are anatomical compartments?

The concept of anatomical compartments in the limb is attributed to Enneking. The idea is that these osteofascial envelopes tend to contain the growth of sarcomas and therefore consideration should be given to removing the whole compartment when operating. Furthermore, it is obvious that biopsies should not cross (and therefore contaminate) uninvolved compartments. Where these barriers are obvious, for example in the thigh, the tumour is said to be in an intracompartmental site. Other sites with less obvious barriers (for example the popliteal fossa) are classified as extracompartmental.

This concept is used in the MSTS staging system and the classification of surgical margins.

Examples of intra- and extracompartmental sites:

Intracompartmental sites Extracompartmental sites
Superficial to deep fascia
Osteofascial compartments Extrafascial planes or spaces
– Ray of hand or foot – Mid- and hindfoot
– Posterior calf – Popliteal space
– Anterolateral leg – Groin/femoral triangle
– Anterior thigh – Intrapelvic
– Medial thigh – Mid hand
– Posterior thigh – Antecubital fossa
– Buttocks – Axilla
– Volar forearm – Periclavicular
– Dorsal forearm – Paraspinal
– Anterior arm – Head and neck
– Posterior arm
– Periscapular

Tumours which arise within a compartment and expand outside it are also classified as extracompartmental. For example, an osteosarcoma of the distal femur with an associated soft tissue mass would be classified as an MSTS 2B if not metastatic.


Limitations of this approach include the fact that although the margins of a compartment might be clear in an axial section, often the superior and inferior limits of the compartment are less well defined.

Referral guidelines for suspected primary bone tumours

NICE guidance suggests the following:

1.13 Bone cancer and sarcoma
General recommendations
1.13.1 A patient who presents with symptoms suggesting bone cancer or
sarcoma should be referred to a team specialising in the
management of bone cancer and sarcoma, or to a recognised bone
cancer centre, depending on local arrangements.
1.13.2 If a primary healthcare professional has concerns about the
interpretation of a patient’s symptoms and/or signs, a discussion
with the local specialist should be considered.
1.13.3 Patients with increasing, unexplained or persistent bone pain or
tenderness, particularly pain at rest (and especially if not in the
joint), or an unexplained limp should be investigated by the primary
healthcare professional urgently. The nature of the investigations
will vary according to the patient’s age and clinical features.
• In older people metastases, myeloma or lymphoma, as well as
sarcoma, should be considered.

Specific recommendations
Bone tumours
1.13.4 A patient with a suspected spontaneous fracture should be referred
for an immediate X-ray.
1.13.5 If an X-ray indicates that bone cancer is a possibility, an urgent
referral should be made.
1.13.6 If the X-ray is normal but symptoms persist, the patient should be
followed up and/or a repeat X-ray or bone function tests or a referral

The UK guidance on the management of bone sarcomas states the following:

The most common symptom of a primary bone tumour is pain which may be nonmechanical or night pain. The presence of bone pain at night should always be considered to be a “red flag” symptom leading to further investigation. The presence of bone swelling or a soft-tissue mass may occur later. The average duration of symptoms is 3 months although a history of 6 months or longer is not uncommon [1315]. The presence of pain or a palpable mass arising from any bone should cause concern and lead to further investigation of which a plain X-ray is the first investigation of choice. The presence of any of the following on the X-ray is suggestive, but not diagnostic of a bone tumour and should also lead to further investigation:
  • bone destruction,
  • new bone formation,
  • periosteal swelling,
  • soft tissue swelling.
Referral forms for the London Sarcoma Service can be found here.
The North of England Bone and Soft Tissue Tumour Service has a fax for urgent referrals: 0191 223 1328. A referral form for professionals can be found here.

References UK guidelines for the management of bone sarcomas. NICE referral guidelines for suspected cancer 2005

Neurofibromatosis Type 1

Neurofibromatosis 1 (NF1) is a common, inherited autosomal dominant disease

The birth incidence is between 1 in 2,500 and 1 in 3,000, with about half being the first in their families to be affected.

Diagnostic criteria are that you need two or more of the following:

  • 6 or more cafe au lait macules (>0.5 cm in children and 1.5cm in adults)
  • 2 or more cutaneous/subcutaneous neurofibromas or 1 plexiform neurofibroma
  • axillary or groin freckling
  • optic pathway glioma
  • 2 or more Lisch nodules
  • bony dysplasia (sphenoid wing dysplasia, bowing of long bone +/- pseudarthrosis
  • parent or child with NF1

Patients with NF1 are at risk of a number of problems including optic pathway gliomas, CNS tumours, hypertension and congenital heart disease.

Orthopaedic problems include:

  • bowing of long bones +/- pseudarthrosis
  • scoliosis
  • osteoporosis
Oncological problems include:
  • benign tumours (neurofibroma, glomus tumours)
  • malignant tumours (10% lifetime risk of malignant change in plexiform neurofibromas (to malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumour),  optic pathway gliomas, cerebral gliomas,  phaeochromocytoma, rhabdomyosarcoma, juvenile myelomonocytic leukaemia, breast cancer in women)
Specialist neurofibromatosis clinics do exist but are few in number.