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Thoracic outlet syndrome

Thoracic outlet syndrome is a term that refers to three related syndromes involving compression of the nerves, arteries, and veins in the lower neck and upper chest area. This compression causes pain in the arm, shoulder, and neck.

Symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome vary depending on the type:

  • Neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome has a symptom called the “Gilliatt-Sumner hand,” in which there is severe wasting (weakening) in the fleshy base of the thumb. Other symptoms may include:
    • Paresthesias (“pins and needles” sensation or numbness) in the fingers and hand
    • Change in hand color
    • Cold hands
    • Dull aching pain in the neck, shoulder, and armpit
  • Venous thoracic outlet syndrome symptoms may include:
    • Pallor (paleness)
    • A weak or absent pulse in the affected arm, which also may be cool to the touch and appear paler than the unaffected arm
    • Numbness, tingling, aching, or swelling of the arm and fingers
    • Weakness of the neck or arm
  • Arterial thoracic outlet syndrome symptoms may include:
    • Change in color in the hands and fingers
    • Sensitivity to cold in the hands and fingers
    • Swelling, heaviness, “pins and needles” sensation or numbness, and poor blood circulation in the arms, hands, and fingers

The outlook for people with thoracic outlet syndrome varies according to type. Most people will improve with exercise and physical therapy. People with vascular thoracic outlet syndrome and true neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome often need surgery to relieve pressure on the affected vessel or nerve.

Who is more likely to get thoracic outlet syndrome?

There are many causes of thoracic outlet syndrome, including:

  • Physical trauma
  • Anatomical defects
  • Tumors that press on nerves
  • Poor posture that causes nerve compression
  • Pregnancy
  • Repetitive arm and shoulder movements and activity, such as from playing certain sports

Thoracic outlet syndrome is more common in women. Symptoms usually begin between ages 20 and 50.

How is thoracic outlet syndrome diagnosed and treated?

Diagnosing thoracic outlet syndrome. Doctors usually recommend nerve conduction studies, electromyography, or imaging studies to confirm or rule out a diagnosis of thoracic outlet syndrome. It can be difficult to diagnose because a number of disorders have symptoms similar to those of thoracic outlet syndrome. Those disorders include:

  • Rotator cuff injuries
  • Cervical disc disorders
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Complex regional pain syndrome
  • Tumors of the syrinx or spinal cord

Thoracic outlet syndrome can sometimes be diagnosed in a physical exam by:

  • Tenderness in the area just above the clavicle or collarbone, toward the hollow of the neck
  • Weakness and/or a "pins and needles" feeling when raising the hands
  • Weakness in the fifth ("little") finger
  • Paleness in the palm of one or both hands when they're raised above the shoulders, with the fingers pointing to the ceiling

Treating thoracic outlet syndrome. Treatment begins with exercise programs and physical therapy to:

  • Strengthen the chest muscles
  • Restore normal posture
  • Relieve compression by increasing the space in the area where the nerve passes through

Doctors will often prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as naproxen or ibuprofen) for pain. Other medicines include:

  • Thromobolytics to break up blood clots
  • Anticoagulants to prevent clots

If this doesn't relieve pain, a doctor may recommend thoracic outlet decompression surgery to release or remove the structures that are compressing the nerve or artery.

How can I or my loved one help improve care for people with thoracic outlet syndrome?

Consider participating in a clinical trial so clinicians and scientists can learn more about thoracic outlet syndrome and related disorders. Clinical research uses human volunteers to help researchers learn more about a disorder and perhaps find better ways to safely detect, treat, or prevent disease.

All types of volunteers are needed—those who are healthy or may have an illness or disease—of all different ages, sexes, races, and ethnicities to ensure that study results apply to as many people as possible, and that treatments will be safe and effective for everyone who will use them.

For information about participating in clinical research visit NIH Clinical Research Trials and You. Learn about clinical trials currently looking for people with thoracic outlet syndrome at

Where can I find more information about thoracic outlet syndrome?

The following organizations help patients, families, friends, and caregivers of people living with thoracic outlet syndrome:

American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA)
Phone: 916-632-0922 or 800-533-3231

National Rehabilitation Information Center (NARIC)
Phone: 800-346-2742

Content source: Accessed June 29, 2023.

The information in this document is for general educational purposes only. It is not intended to substitute for personalized professional advice. Although the information was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, MedLink, its representatives, and the providers of the information do not guarantee its accuracy and disclaim responsibility for adverse consequences resulting from its use. For further information, consult a physician and the organization referred to herein.

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