Thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) occurs when the thoracic outlet (the space between the collarbone and your first rib) has narrowed. This can happen for many reasons, including as a result of injury, disease, or a structural issue that has been there since birth.

TOS can cause a variety of unpleasant symptoms because it affects the nerves, blood vessels, and muscles that start in the chest and wind down into the arms. When this area becomes compressed, the pressure can lead to pain in the neck, arms, and shoulders. Some patients also report experiencing numbness and tingling in the arms and hands.

Although the exact cause of thoracic outlet syndrome is unknown, many experts believe it stems from physical trauma, repetitive motions, and structural problems. To avoid the many problems this collarbone decompression can cause, it is imperative you seek treatment, such as medication, rehabilitation, and physical therapy.

While it is true that most everyone will experience some neck, arm, or shoulder pain during their lifetime, it is important to address the other serious issues TOS can cause.

What Are the Symptoms of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome?

The symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome vary widely depending on a host of factors. One of the most important considerations is whether the nerves and/or blood vessels are being affected by this compression. When the compression presses in on the nerves, the following symptoms may occur:

  • Pain in the neck, shoulder, arm, or hand
  • Numbness in the arm and hand
  • Sudden weakness in the hand

In the event the blood vessels are compressed, patients may experience symptoms such as:

  • Swelling of the arm
  • Discoloration or redness of the arm
  • Extremities that feel cold to the touch
  • Extremities that are weak or become fatigued easily

What Causes Thoracic Outlet Syndrome?

Again, the cause of TOS remains somewhat of a mystery, but some theories suggest it happens when there is vessel narrowing in the lower neck, collarbone, and upper chest area.  Illness, injury, or trauma are usually the cause of such narrowing. Some of the most common health problems linked to thoracic outlet syndrome include:

  • Neck injury
  • Being born with an extra rib
  • Being born with an abnormality in your neck muscles
  • Collarbone or first rib injury
  • Repetitive overhead movements
  • Sleep disorders
  • Stress or depression

Who is Affected by TOS?

Thoracic outlet syndrome can affect anyone; however, those who have been in a car accident, have poor posture, or have jobs that require repetitive movements are at a higher risk. People suffering from extreme obesity are also at risk of this type of deep compression.

How is Thoracic Outlet Syndrome Treated?

Treating TOS will depend on the individual, what caused the condition, and a host of other factors. Treatment starts with decompression, which is basically the action of releasing the blood vessels, nerves, and muscles. Some of the most effective treatments include:

  • Physical therapy
  • Pain medications that will decrease inflammation
  • Weight loss
  • Changes in lifestyle
  • Surgery (in extreme cases)

We would be happy to recommend a physical therapist, should you choose to go in that direction. Thankfully, thoracic outlet syndrome is highly treatable and can easily be diagnosed with an X-ray, MRI, or electromyography. The overarching goal of these treatments is to provide the patient with relief from any symptoms or pain, which is something we do right here at OSA.

To request treatment to discuss your condition with Dr. Atwater, please do not hesitate to schedule an appointment today.


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