Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS) is a painful medical issue with painful medical procedures, but certain techniques of massage can bring pain relief, reduce inflammation, and decrease healing time. There is much controversy among physicians and diagnosing this syndrome is very difficult. It is often confused with carpal tunnel syndrome, brachial plexus syndrome, rotator cuff syndrome, and bursitis.

What Is the Thoracic Outlet?

Massage therapy is highly effective in treating thoracic outlet syndrome.The term “thoracic outlet” refers to the entire area defined by scalenes and the first rib, or to the passage between the anterior and middle scalenes. On their way to the arm, the axillary (subclavian) artery and brachial plexus pass between these two muscles, then between the first rib and the clavicle. They can become entrapped at some point in this area by tightness in the anterior and middle scalenes. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish pain referred by the scalenes from pain resulting from entrapment of the brachial plexus.

How Do I Know if I Have Thoracic Outlet Syndrome?

TOS is impingement of the brachial plexus nerve bundle and the blood vessels going to and from the arm. As a reminder, a syndrome is a collection of specific symptoms that is not a true pathological condition.

Symptoms include:

  • Edema
  • Numbness
  • Tingling sensations
  • Weakness of the upper limbs
  • Paresthesia (pins and needles)
  • Shooting pain
  • Feeling of fullness
  • Possible discoloration in the area due to diminished circulation

To diagnose this problem, a doctor or therapist will have you move your neck and shoulders in specific directions, which may result in a nerve entrapment or pinching sensation. They will also ask you to lift your hands above your head and open and close them for a few minutes. If you feel pain, numbness, or heaviness, you may have this disorder.

What Causes TOS?

Massage therapy is highly effective in treating thoracic outlet syndrome.There are various causes that produce symptoms of pressure on structures such as nerves (in the brachial plexus) and blood vessels that exit from the thorax (posterior to the clavicle) to enter the limbs:

  • Cervical or rib misalignment
  • Tight muscles
  • Spasm of neck muscles (scalenes) or other muscles such as the pectoralis minor lying close to the structures passing through the outlet
  • Atrophied muscles, muscle degeneration
  • Herniated intervertebral disk
  • Spondylosis (a bone spur at the nerve root)
  • Whiplash
  • Postural changes during pregnancy
  • Any activity that causes enlargement (weight lifting or weight gain) or movement (exercise or injuries) of the muscles in this area

So Can Massage Help?

Massage IS indicated for TOS if muscle tightness or spasm causes the impingement. If there are any causes other than muscular tension, massage is contraindicated for that local problem area.

Massage helps by:

  • Relaxing the area
  • Increasing circulation
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Speeding up the healing time

Massage therapy is highly effective in treating thoracic outlet syndrome.During a session, focus is on the muscles of the neck, shoulders, arms, and upper back. The upper chest and arm area is also a focus. Overall treatment for TOS includes specialized exercise routines, massage therapy techniques, possible physical therapy, and in some severe cases, surgery.

If symptoms do not diminish with massage, impingement may be due to another cause and such clients should be referred to their healthcare professional to get a diagnosis and treatment plan. While the condition is present, avoid being in prolonged positions with the shoulders and arms, such as sleeping on arms, changing desk orientations to increase ergonomics, and so on.

Again, you don’t have to live with the pain. Choose to start the healing process today.

See you on the table!


Introduction to Massage Therapy, second edition, Mary Beth Braun, BA, MT, NCTMB & Stephanie J. Simonson, BS, MT

The Massage Connection: Anatomy & Physiology, second edition, Kalyani Premkumar, MBBS, MD, MSc (Med Ed), CMT, PhD

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome & Massage,