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Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

Huang, Jason H. M.D.; Zager, Eric L. M.D.

doi: 10.1227/01.NEU.0000137333.04342.4D
Topic Review

OBJECTIVE: Thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) is one of the most controversial clinical entities in medicine. We provide a review of this difficult-to-treat disorder, including a brief overview, clinical presentations, surgical anatomy, treatment options, and outcomes.

METHODS: TOS represents a spectrum of disorders encompassing three related syndromes: compression of the brachial plexus (neurogenic TOS), compression of the subclavian artery or vein (vascular TOS), and the nonspecific or disputed type of TOS. Neurovascular compression may be observed most commonly in the interscalene triangle, but it also has been described in the costoclavicular space and in the subcoracoid space. Patients present with symptoms and signs of arterial insufficiency, venous obstruction, painless wasting of intrinsic hand muscles, paresthesia, and pain. A careful and detailed medical history and physical examination are the most important diagnostic tools for proper identification of TOS. Electromyography, nerve conduction studies, and imaging of the cervical spine and the chest also can provide helpful information regarding diagnosis. Clinical management usually starts with conservative treatment including exercise programs and physical therapy; when these therapies fail, patients are considered for surgery. Two of the most commonly used surgical approaches are the supraclavicular exposure and the transaxillary approach with first rib resection. On occasion, these approaches may be combined or, alternatively, posterior subscapular exposure may be used in selected patients.

CONCLUSION: TOS is perhaps the most difficult entrapment neuropathy encountered by neurosurgeons. Surgical intervention is indicated for vascular and true neurogenic TOS and for some patients with the common or nonspecific type of TOS in whom nonoperative therapies fail. With careful patient selection, operative intervention usually yields satisfactory results.

Department of Neurosurgery, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Huang, Zager)

Reprint requests: Jason H. Huang, M.D., Department of Neurosurgery, 3 Silverstein Pavilion, 3400 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104. Email:

Received, May 2, 2003.

Accepted, May 24, 2004.

Copyright © by the Congress of Neurological Surgeons