Controversy surrounding the diagnosis and treatment of Thoracic outlet syndrome | Is it really Thoracic outlet syndrome?

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Ross Hauser, MD

In this article we will discuss Thoracic outlet syndrome. As we will see there is much controversy surrounding the diagnosis and treatment of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. We will also see controversies surrounding what doctors consider a successful treatment and what patients consider a successful treatment.

If you have questions about Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, you can get help and information from our Caring Medical staff.

Italian researchers writing in the March 2017 issue of Neurological Science, tried to explain the problems of identifying and diagnosing Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.

“Despite its low prevalence and incidence, considerable debate exists in the literature on Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS). From literature analysis on nerve entrapments, we realized that TOS is the second most commonly published entrapment syndrome in the literature (after carpal tunnel syndrome) and that it is even more reported than ulnar neuropathy at elbow, which, instead, is very frequent.”

In essence, Thoracic Outlet Syndrome gets a lot of publicity in the medical community and these researchers are not sure why because it is somewhat rare.

“Despite the large amount of articles, there is still controversy regarding its classification, clinical picture, diagnostic objective findings, diagnostic modalities, therapeutical strategies and outcomes. While some experts believe that TOS is underrated, overlooked and very frequent, others even doubt its existence as a nosological entity.”(1)

Nosological means to be medical classified, many doctors do not believe Thoracic Outlet Syndrome should be classified as a diagnosis.

Thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) locations. TOS can occur at the level of the scalene muscles (1), ribs (2), or at the shoulder joint (3).

The thoracic outlet consists of the space between the inferior border of the clavicle and the upper border of the first rib.

The subclavian artery, subclavian vein, and brachial plexus nerves (the network of nerves to the arm) exit the neck region and go into the arm via this space.

In thoracic outlet syndrome, the space is, presumably, narrowed, and it is this narrowing causing the compression of these structures.

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome symptoms

However, in severe cases of compression of the subclavian vessels, Raynaud’s phenomenon (numbness in the body sometimes associated with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome), claudication, thrombosis, and edema can occur in the involved extremity.

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is a legitimate condition and does occur but its prevalence is extremely rare! Most people who come to Caring Medical with the diagnosis of TOS leave with other diagnoses such as glenohumeral ligament sprain, rotator cuff tendinopathy, cervical ligament sprain, or slipping rib syndrome. I discuss this below.

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome Surgical Treatment

Prolotherapy Thoracic Examination

For Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery to work, you must use it on patients who actually have Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. Here is a quote from John Hopkin’s research:

“Excellent results were seen in this surgical series of neurogenic, venous, and arterial Thoracic Outlet Syndrome due to appropriate selection of neurogenic patients, use of a standard protocol for venous patients, and expedient intervention in arterial patients.”(2)

However, in new research, specialists offer warnings to their fellow surgeons:

“Non-surgical treatment must be attempted as the first line of treatment for all patients with TOS. Many patients respond to this conservative therapy; however, others need surgical treatment.”(3)

Surgical intervention, that is the cutting of structures to give the nerve more room, will not eliminate the symptoms the person is having and could, quite possibly, cause more problems. In fact many surgeons, because of the high complication rate in select patients and limited reports of post-surgical success, as noted, only offer surgery as a last resort.

Back to the cited research:

In the failed operations, pseudo-recurrences (return of symptoms) such as technical errors in the initial surgery may have occurred. Technical errors include a resection of a cervical rib with an abnormal first rib or a resection of the first rib with a cervical rib left in place, associated muscle and tendon damage from the procedure.(3)

Fusion operations supposedly stabilize unstable segments. So if a person gets a fusion operation at say T2-T4, the segments above and below this level are prone to getting advanced degenerative arthritis because all of the movement in this area of the spine have to come from there (because T2-T4 can’t move). For people who have been proposed a thoracic spine surgery option, Prolotherapy should be looked into, we will discuss this below.

More surgical concerns

Doctors at the University of South Florida are trying to solve the very bad problem of postoperative pain management following Thoracic Outlet Decompression.

Writing in the medical journal Annals of vascular surgery the doctors note:

In their study the doctors sought to make improvements in hospital length of stay and patient pain control with an improved multiagent pain management regimen.

They examined Thoracic outlet decompression patient records. They looked at hospital length of stay, medication regimen/usage, operative details, and operative indications for all patients undergoing Thoracic outlet decompression from January 2012 through June 2015.

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome Non-Surgical Treatment

People end up coming to Caring Medical with a diagnosis of thoracic outlet syndrome looking for relief of their symptoms. After I examine them I found that it is not thoracic outlet syndrome that they have.  Thoracic outlet syndrome is rare. It is often the diagnosis given when a patient goes to the doctor and they raise their arm and their pulse drops and/or they will develop numbness down his/her arm. They may also describe symptoms related to the neck, shoulder and elbow.

If you have Thoracic outlet syndrome normally you would get an x-ray or MRI or CT scan to confirm or eliminate an extra rib as the problem.

As you will see in the case history below, a diagnosis of thoracic outlet syndrome is given because there is a belief that nerves in the thoracic outlet that wind their way down to this side of the hand by the little finger and the the ring finger are being pinched. But most of the time when people come to see me they don’t have that symptom, they have some odd kind of arm and hand pain with on and off numbness. This is usually a ligament issue that is referring a numbness and pain down the arm. It is the ligaments normally found in the inferior cervical neck area like C6 C7 T1 and shoulder.

So we are looking for shoulder instability causing referral pain down your arm that simulates thoracic outlet syndrome, we are looking for clicking in the neck and neck instability causing numbness down the arm, we are looking at elbow instability causing issues in the fingers and hand.

Recently we saw a patient who carried with her a large stack of medical records. The most common diagnosis she carried from all of the doctors she saw was Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. The patient exhibited some of the classic symptoms including:

On initial physical examination we demonstrated to her how ligaments in the neck refer pain to the head, hands, and fingers and could cause symptoms that mimic Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. Weakened ligaments allow subluxation of the thoracic spine or subluxation of a rib that attaches to the thoracic spine. The later condition is also known as slipping rib syndrome.

In my opinion, as discussed in the video, a patient can benefit from Prolotherapy to the pain-producing structure(s), Prolotherapy to the neck ligaments, shoulder ligaments and tendons, or to a rib that is slipping.

Typically about six sessions of Prolotherapy are warranted. The thoracic spine often heals slower than other areas of the body because it is never at rest. Even during sleep the thoracic spine continues to move, so it heals slower even with Prolotherapy. Typically 3 to 6 sessions of Prolotherapy are needed, but for thoracic spine conditions it is more like 5-8 session.

Prolotherapy by getting at the root cause of the condition, helps eliminate their pain. For those who have spinal cord injury or other signs of nerve irritation surgery may be the only option.

If you have questions about Thoracic outlet syndrome, you can get help and information from our Caring Medical staff

1 Doneddu PE, Coraci D De Franco P, Paolasso I, Caliandro P, Padua L. Thoracic outlet syndrome: wide literature for few cases. Status of the art. Neurol Sci. 2017 Mar;38(3):383-388. doi: 10.1007/s10072-016-2794-4.[Google Scholar]

2 Orlando MS, Likes KC, Mirza S, Cao Y, Cohen A, Lum YW, Reifsnyder T, Freischlag JA. A decade of excellent outcomes after surgical intervention in 538 patients with thoracic outlet syndrome. Journal of the American College of Surgeons. 2015 May 31;220(5):934-9.[Google Scholar.]

3 Hosseinian MA, Loron AG, Soleimanifard Y. Evaluation of Complications after Surgical Treatment of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. The Korean Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery. 2017;50(1):36-40.[Google Scholar]

4 Wooster M, Reed D, Tanious A, Illig K. Post-operative Pain Management Following Thoracic Outlet Decompression. Annals of Vascular Surgery. 2017 May 4.[Google Scholar]


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