Do You Have Thoracic Outlet Syndrome?

Have you experienced tingling or numbness in your arms or pain in your shoulders? If you have, particularly when raising your arms, you may have thoracic outlet syndrome. When a group of disorders occurs after a compression injury or there is irritation of the arteries or veins in the upper chest and lower neck area it is referred to as thoracic outlet syndrome. The injury commonly affects people who are regular participants in a sport that uses repetitive motions of the shoulders and arms commonly seen in tennis, swimming, cricket and others. Thoracic outlet syndrome is also commonly caused by pregnancy or car accidents and it can sometimes be difficult for doctors to diagnose the cause of the injury. 

There are three different types of thoracic outlet syndrome known as neurological, vascular and nonspecific type. Neurological thoracic outlet syndrome is the most common type of thoracic outlet syndrome and is characterised by compression of the brachial plexus. The brachial plexus is a network of nerves that come from your spinal cord and control muscle movements and sensation in your shoulder, arm and hand. Vascular thoracic outlet syndrome occurs when one or more of the veins or arteries under the collarbone are compressed. Nonspecific-type thoracic outlet syndrome may be a myth as some doctors believe it doesn’t exist. However, there are doctors out there who believe that this disorder is common. People with nonspecific-type thoracic outlet syndrome have chronic pain in the area of the thoracic outlet that worsens with activity, but a specific cause of the pain can’t be determined.

Many different symptoms can be associated with thoracic outlet syndrome as there are different structures of the body that can become compressed. The signs and symptoms associated with vascular thoracic outlet syndrome are a weakness in the neck and arms, discolouration of your hand, weak or no pulse in your hands, arm swelling and pain, arm fatigue or numbing in your fingers and throbbing near your collarbone. The symptoms of neurological thoracic outlet syndrome are much less varied and include pain in your shoulder, neck or hand, a weakening grip, tingling or numbness in your arm or fingers and muscle wasting in your thumb base.

Some of the main causes of thoracic outlet syndrome are obesity, posture, past injuries and repetitive sports. Obesity is a huge problem with many injuries and thoracic outlet syndrome is no exception. Being obese puts extreme pressure on the muscles that support your back and collarbone, so it is extremely important to monitor your weight. Having poor posture causes your collarbone to move out of place over time and places pressure and stress on your nerves. If you have past injuries, they can have strong long-term impacts on your joints which causes inflammation and leaves scar tissue. 

It is very important to get diagnosed for thoracic outlet syndrome as early as possible as you may experience progressive nerve damage if it has not been treated early. If treatments via physio are not effective some doctors may recommend surgery however that comes with much higher risks. Some of the best ways to prevent thoracic outlet syndrome are to avoid repetitive movements and lifting heavy objects where possible. Losing weight is also one of the best ways to prevent thoracic outlet syndrome as being obese is a key risk factor. If you are someone who occasionally carries heavy bags on their shoulders, you may want to reconsider as over time this can cause pressure on the thoracic outlet. It is important to stretch daily and perform exercises to keep your upper body strong. 

There are many ways you can help to control your thoracic outlet syndrome from the comfort of your own home! One of the best ways is to ensure you always maintain good posture and take frequent breaks to stretch and walk around the house. Avoid activities that worsen your symptoms and try to adapt some of the things you do on a day to day basis. Finally, try applying a heating pad to the affected area and gently massage your shoulders when you get some free time. 

Assuming you have had your thoracic outlet syndrome diagnosed early, one of the best ways to effectively treat it is through physical therapy.  Especially when it comes to the neurological form of the syndrome, physical therapy can increase the range of motion of the shoulders and neck which strengthens and promotes better posture. Our expert physical therapists at Studio Musculoskeletal will ensure your recovery journey is tailored to your needs and monitored closely.


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