Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

What is it? Thoracic outlet syndrome is a group of disorders that occur when the blood vessels or nerves in the thoracic outlet — the space between your collarbone and your first rib — become compressed. This can cause pain in your shoulders and neck and numbness in your fingers.

Statistics: It is difficult to diagnose thoracic outlet syndrome, as its symptoms are often mistaken for other conditions such as rotator cuff injuries, cervical disc disorders, multiple sclerosis, tumors, and others. Therefore, there are no reliable statistics that reflect how many people suffer from thoracic outlet syndrome.

Important Facts: Thoracic outlet syndrome has been described as occurring in a diverse population. It is most often the result of poor or strenuous posture but can also result from trauma or constant muscle tension in the shoulder girdle.

Static postures such as those sustained by assembly line workers, cash register operators, students of, for example, those who do needle work often result in a drooping shoulder and forward head posture. This position of the shoulders and head is also indicative of poor upper body posture. Middle aged and elderly women who suffer from osteoporosis often display this type of posture as a result of increased thoracic spinal kyphosis.

Treatment Duration: When thoracic outlet syndrome affects the nerves, the first treatment is always physical therapy. Physical therapy helps strengthen the shoulder muscles, improve range of motion, and promote better posture. Treatment may also include pain medication.

Do’s/Don’ts: By sleeping in correct, ergonomically sound positions, the body remains aligned properly, and can thereby greatly reduce the possibility of developing Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.

In general, to avoid unnecessary stress on your shoulders and muscles surrounding the thoracic outlet: maintain good posture, take frequent breaks at work, and practice relaxation techniques.

Even if you don’t have symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome, avoid carrying heavy bags over your shoulder, because this can increase pressure on the thoracic outlet.

Common Myths: Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is a common cause of chest pain, and should be considered in all patients with chest pain because of its frequent association with cardiac and esophageal disease.