Thoracic outlet syndromes are a group of disorders that cause pain and abnormal nerve sensations in the neck, shoulder, arm, and/or hand.
The thoracic outlet is an area at the top of the rib cage, between the neck and the chest. Several anatomical structures pass through this area, including the esophagus, trachea, and nerves and blood vessels that lead to the arm and neck region. The area contains the first rib, collar bone (clavicle), the arteries beneath the collar bone (subclavian artery), which supply blood to the arms, a network of nerves leading to the arms (brachial plexus), and the top of the lungs.
Pain and other symptoms occur when the nerves or blood vessels in this area are compressed. The likelihood of blood vessels or nerves in the thoracic outlet being compressed increases with increased size of body tissues in this area or with decreased size of the thoracic outlet. The pain of thoracic outlet syndrome is sometimes confused with the pain of angina that indicates heart problems. The two conditions can be distinguished from each other because the pain of thoracic outlet syndrome does not appear or increase when walking, while the pain of angina does. Also, the pain of thoracic outlet syndrome usually increases if the affected arm is raised, which does not happen in cases of angina.
There are three types of thoracic outlet syndrome:
- True neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome is caused by a compression of the nerves in the brachial plexus. Abnormal muscle or other tissue causes the problem.
- Arterial thoracic outlet syndrome is caused by compression of the major artery leading to the arm, usually by a rib.
- Disputed thoracic outlet syndrome describes patients who have chronic pain in the shoulders and arms and have no other disease or syndrome, but the underlying cause cannot be accurately determined.
Thoracic outlet syndrome is most common in women who are 35-55 years of age.
Causes & symptoms
Compression of blood vessels or nerves in the thoracic outlet causes pain and/or abnormal nerve sensations. Compression usually occurs at the location where the blood vessels and nerves pass out of the thoracic outlet into the arm.
There are several factors that contribute to a person developing thoracic outlet syndrome. Poor posture is a major cause and is easy to treat. A person's physical makeup also can cause thoracic outlet syndrome. For example, abnormalities of certain anatomical structures can put pressure on blood vessels or nerves. Typical abnormalities that can cause problems are malformed ribs and too narrow an opening between the collar bone and the first rib.
The main symptom is pain in the affected area. The patient can also develop weakness in the arm and hands, tingling nerve sensations, and a condition called Raynaud's syndrome. In Raynaud's syndrome exposure to cold causes small arteries in the fingers to contract, cutting off blood flow. This causes the fingers to turn pale. In very severe cases of blood vessel compression, gangrene can result. Gangrene is the death of tissue caused by the blood supply being completely cut off.
In the case of arterial thoracic outlet syndrome, the artery beneath the collar bone leading to the arm is compressed causing the artery to increase in size. Blood clots (thrombi) may form in the blood vessel. When blood vessels are compressed, the hands, arms, and shoulders do not receive proper blood supply. They can swell and turn blue from a lack of blood.
In the case of true neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome, the nerves most affected are those of the network of nerves supplying the chest, shoulder, arm, forearm, and hand (brachial plexus). When a nerve is affected in thoracic outlet syndrome it produces a tingling sensation (paresthesia). It can also cause weakness in the hand and reduced sensation in the palm and fingers.
There are no specific diagnostic tests for thoracic outlet syndromes. The diagnosis is made by ruling out other diseases and by observing the patient. Two non-specific tests that can suggest the presence of thoracic outlet syndrome are the Adson's test and the Allen test. In the Adson test, the patient takes a deep breath and tilts his or her head back and turns it to one side. The physician tests to see if the strength of the patient's pulse is reduced in the wrist on the arm on the opposite side of the head turn. In the Allen test, the arm in which the patient is experiencing symptoms is raised and rotated while the head is turned to the opposite side. The physician tests to see if the pulse strength at the wrist is reduced. If the strength of the pulse is reduced in either of these two tests it indicates compression of the subclavian artery.
Occasionally, examination with a stethoscope may reveal abnormal sounds in affected blood vessels. X rays can reveal constrictions in blood vessels if a special dye is injected into the blood stream to make the blood vessels visible (angiography).
Certain tests are available to help with the diagnosis of nerve compression. These include the nerve conduction velocity test and somatosensory evoked potential test. In the nerve conduction velocity test, electrodes are placed at various locations on the skin along a nerve that is being tested. A mild electrical impulse is delivered through an electrode at one end of the nerve and the electrical activity is recorded by the other electrodes. The time it takes for the electrical impulse to travel down the nerve from the stimulating electrodes to the recording electrodes is used to calculate the nerve conduction velocity. This can be used to determine if any nerve damage exists.
In a somatosensory evoked potential test, electrodes are placed on the skin at the scalp, neck, shoulder, and wrist. A mild electrical impulse is delivered at the wrist, and a recording is made of the response by the brain and spinal cord. This test also can determine the presence of nerve damage.
The main treatment for thoracic outlet syndrome is physical therapy. Exercises aimed at improving the posture of the affected person are also useful. In some cases, surgery can be performed to remove the cervical rib if this is causing the problem and physical therapy has failed to work. However, surgery is generally not used to treat thoracic outlet syndrome.
Treatment of true neurogenic and arterial thoracic outlet syndromes is usually successful. Treatment of disputed thoracic outlet syndrome is often unsuccessful. This may relate to the uncertainty of the underlying cause of the pain.
- A severe constricting pain in the chest, usually caused by a lack of oxygen to the heart.
- Caused by nerves. Originating in the nerves.
- Located beneath the collarbone (clavicle).
For Your Information
- Berkow, Robert, ed. Merck Manual of Medical Information. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck Research Laboratories, 1997.
- Braunwald, E. Heart Disease. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1997.
- Fauci, A.S., et al, eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Gale Research, 1999.