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Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS) is a potentially painful and disabling condition of the upper extremity. It results from the compression of structures in the thoracic outlet, a space just above the first rib, and behind the clavicle (collar bone). Due to the range of signs and symptoms that can lead to a diagnosis of TOS, the incidence rates of the condition currently are unknown. Physical therapists work with individuals who have TOS to ease their symptoms and restore their upper-body function.

How Does it Feel?

Because TOS generally is classified based upon the type of structures compressed, the symptoms experienced may vary. However, more than 90% of TOS cases are thought to be neurogenic (nerve compression) in nature (categories 3 and 4 below).

Arterial TOS

Pain in the hand; rarely in shoulder or neck
Coldness or cold intolerance
Numbness and tingling
Venous TOS

Pain in the arm
Swelling in the arm
Change in arm coloration (appears bluish)
Feeling of heaviness in the arm
Numbness and tingling in fingers and hands
True Neurogenic TOS

Pain, numbness, and tingling in the hand, arm, shoulder, and often the neck
Headaches
Numbness and tingling of the arm, often waking the individual up at night
Hand clumsiness
Intolerance to cold
Hand coldness and color changes
Disputed Neurogenic TOS

Pain, numbness and tingling in the hand, arm, shoulder and often the neck
Headaches
Numbness and tingling of the arm, often waking the individual up at night
Hand clumsiness
Intolerance to cold
Hand coldness and color changes
Symptoms greater at night vs day
Tests may come back normal (hence, the term “disputed”).

How Is It Diagnosed?

Diagnosis of TOS begins with a thorough health history and clinical examination.

Your physical therapist will likely check for color changes in the affected area, and gently attempt to provoke symptoms by moving the affected limb in different directions.

You also may be referred for diagnostic testing, such as a Doppler ultrasound, which can confirm arterial and venous TOS, or nerve conduction velocity testing to help confirm a true neurogenic TOS.

Your physical therapist may be the first to recognize an onset of TOS, because of its effects on your physical function. Your physical therapist may ask you:

When did you begin experiencing these symptoms, and when are they the worst?
Have you noticed any change in your symptoms when the temperature changes?
Have you noticed any significant changes in your ability to perform physical tasks that require hand movements?
Have you noticed any changes in the appearance of your arm or hand?
In addition, your physical therapist will rule out other conditions, which may mimic this disorder. Your therapist may ask you to fill out a questionnaire in order to better understand your physical state, and to screen for the presence of other conditions.

How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

Once you have received a diagnosis of TOS, your physical therapist will work with you to develop a treatment plan to help ease the discomfort, and improve your ability to perform daily activities. Most research on this condition recommends a treatment plan that involves physical therapy to help ease your symptoms and improve function.

Physical therapy treatments may include:

Manual Therapy. Manual (hands-on) therapy may be applied to manipulate or mobilize the nerves of the arm to help reduce symptoms, such as pain and numbness/tingling. Your physical therapist also may attempt to gently mobilize your first rib and/or collar bone.

Movement and Strengthening Exercises. Your physical therapist will teach you muscle-strengthening exercises to improve movement and strength in the affected area.

Education. Your physical therapist will teach you strategies that can help minimize your symptoms while performing your daily functional activities.

Activity modification and postural strategies: Your physical therapist will teach you positions and strategies to place less stress on the structures involved with TOS.

Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?

While some cases of TOS cannot be prevented, such as those due to anatomical variations, congenital conditions, trauma, or space-occupying lesions, others may be avoidable. Understanding risk factors that could make you more likely to develop this condition is the first step in prevention.

Your physical therapist will work with you to develop strategies to help you better understand and manage your risk factors and symptoms. As with many conditions, education is key. Understanding strategies, such as methods of reducing symptoms while performing activities, can help you live a full and functional life after the onset of TOS.

Real Life Experiences

George is a 45-year-old used-car salesman who takes potential customers on test drives in a crowded city area. Recently on a test drive, his customer ran a red light and the vehicle was struck by another motorist on the passenger side, where George was sitting. George was shaken up, although the police assured him the actual collision was minor.

George was taken to the emergency room following the accident, and received an X-ray, which was negative for a fracture of his clavicle. Fearing that he may be having a heart attack, he also followed up with his primary care physician, who was able to rule that out as well.

Over the next few days, George felt pain on his right side, and numbness and tingling down his right arm. His symptoms seemed to be worse at night. He called in sick to work, fearing he could be injured further on the job. He called his physical therapist.

George’s physical therapist conducted a full physical examination. During the exam, George reported that he felt very anxious about the recent event, and wasn’t sure he’d be able to trust taking customers on test drives anymore.

George’s physical therapist noticed the presence of a rounded shoulder and forward-head posture, as she examined him. She was able to provoke George’s symptoms by gently placing his arm in particular positions, and gently pressing in the region of George’s first rib. She carefully checked for any other conditions that could be causing his symptoms. She told George that she suspected neurogenic TOS.

She developed a strategy for physical therapy that was best for him, consisting of activities and exercises to increase his strength, confidence, and function, while also easing his pain. She showed him postural activities to reduce compressive forces on his nerves. She also helped him with “nerve gliding” activities (encouraging his nerves to glide normally as his joints moved) to improve the function of the affected nerves.

Despite the complexity of the condition, George did well with his personalized course of physical therapy. Following several weeks of treatment and exercise, he was able to return to work without symptoms, and with a new-found confidence that he could ride in a car with customers again. With his physical therapist’s ongoing help, George has returned to his normal activities of daily living.

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