Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

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Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is a rare condition that occurs when the blood vessels or nerves in the space between your collarbone and your first rib (thoracic outlet) become compressed. It causes pain in the neck and shoulder, numbness and tingling in the fingers, and a weak grip.

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Blood vessels and nerves coming from the spine or major blood vessels of the body pass through a narrow space near your shoulder and collarbone on the way to the arms. Sometimes, there is not enough space for the nerves to pass by or through the collarbone (clavicle) and upper ribs. Pressure on these blood vessels or nerves can cause symptoms in the arms or hands.

People with this condition have injured the area in the past or overused the shoulder. Common causes of thoracic outlet syndrome include physical trauma from a car accident, repetitive use from a job or sports, certain anatomical defects (such as having an extra rib), and pregnancy.

Thoracic outlet syndrome may cause:

  • Neck, shoulder or arm pain
  • Numbness in the arm, hand or fingers
  • Impaired circulation to the extremities (causing discoloration)
  • Weakness in the shoulders, arm, and hands
  • Swelling of the entire arm and shoulder

Thoracic outlet syndrome can be hard to diagnose, but the vascular specialists at University of Maryland are experts at identifying and recommending appropriate treatment options.

Medications and physical therapy are often used to treat this condition. However, if medical therapy doesn’t work or there are blood clots present, surgery may be the best option. Surgery may be performed to remove the first rib and make more room for the vessels and nerves. Surgery may also be performed to repair any structural problems of the artery or vein.

Electrician back to work after surgery

University of Maryland Medical Center Thoracic Outlet Syndrome Patient Octavia TaylorIt had been years since Octavia Taylor could turn her head to the left without feeling pain.

Working as an electrician at the National Institutes of Health, there was plenty of turning and twisting, so much that at times Taylor had to ask coworkers to complete seemingly simple tasks for her.

“I’d have to lift my head up and the whole left side would crack,” said Taylor, who also experienced pain when reaching overhead. “Everyday tasks at work were becoming really hard to do.”

After seeing multiple doctors, undergoing several tests, and even having surgery to attach nerves to her spine, Taylor was still experiencing pain. That’s when she was referred to Rajabrata Sarkar, MD, PhD, chief of the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Division of Vascular Surgery.

Read more about Octavia's surgery and recovery here.

A rare and often puzzling condition known as thoracic outlet syndrome meets its match when patients come to University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC).

Thoracic outlet syndrome encompasses a group of disorders occurring with compression of the nerves, arteries or veins in the lower neck and upper chest

Dr. Sarkar, also the Barbara Baur Dunlap Professor of Surgery and Physiology at University of Maryland School of Medicine, hopes UMMC will continue to increase the volume of these patients when they learn of its multidisciplinary expertise in TOS, including a team of experienced thoracic and vascular surgeons and orthopaedic rehabilitation experts.  

Read more about Rare Thoracic Outlet Syndrome here.