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The Thoracic Outlet Syndrome Program in the Division of Thoracic Surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital provides expert diagnosis, treatment and support to patients with thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) and related conditions.
TOS is an uncommon disorder caused by pressure on the nerves in an area called the brachial plexus, or on the blood vessels just behind the collarbone. There are three types of TOS: neurogenic (NTOS), venous (VTOS) and arterial (ATOS).
The symptoms for each patient usually vary, but may include pain and tingling in the arm, neck, shoulder, upper chest and back.
TOS can be extremely difficult to diagnose and treat. Doctors who treat TOS often have differing opinions and approaches to patient care. At Mass General, our approach is to recommend a combination of physical and drug therapy as a first line of defense before surgery. Patients who do not respond to this approach may be evaluated for surgical treatment. Qualified patients will meet with their surgeon to discuss their options.
Our doctors are highly skilled in properly diagnosing and treating TOS. Our program attracts patients from New England and all over the country who may suffer from TOS. Mass General is a major referral center for this disorder, and our physicians have a history of offering solutions for patients whose prior treatments were unsuccessful. We work collaboratively with specialists across various disciplines at Mass General to provide expert care to our patients with the goal of achieving the best possible outcomes. These areas include:
Our experts customize a diagnostic and treatment program for each patient. A diagnosis is established by ruling out other disorders and then testing to see if the condition involves the nerves (NTOS), the blood vessels (VTOS or ATOS) or some combination of these.
Our thorough clinical assessment begins with a detailed history and physical examination during the initial office visit. Additional examinations are tailored to each patient’s needs and may include:
For many patients, our initial treatment includes a combination of physical therapy and medications. Many of our patients do not require surgery to improve their symptoms. Each treatment decision, including the decision to perform surgery, is specific to each patient.
Physical therapy is the first line of treatment for the majority of NTOS patients. In some cases, several months of dedicated physical therapy may be required before a patient begins to notice their symptoms improve. Physical therapy may address:
Ultrasound-guided injections into the neck and chest muscles with Botox® may be used to ease nerve pain in some patients. Many patients whose symptoms have improved following Botox injections may be able to participate more actively in a physical therapy program, which can improve the overall results.
For NTOS, a successful surgical outcome depends upon a combination of an accurate diagnosis and technical precision during surgery. Determining whether or not surgery is a good option to treat NTOS can be difficult. The patient’s care team will make a recommendation based on his/her evaluation.
The treatment of VTOS begins during the initial diagnostic contrast venogram. When a clot is identified, medication to dissolve this clot can be administered immediately. In most patients, the underlying problem is narrowing of the vein from thoracic outlet compression. This is why treating the clot alone is not sufficient in many patients. If there is vein compression, surgery may be recommended depending upon the severity. Patients may need to remain on medications to prevent clotting (blood thinners) for up to three months following surgery, but can then return to normal activity.
ATOS represents thrombosis of the subclavian artery (an artery leading to each arm that delivers blood to the heart) or aneurysm formation within the thoracic outlet, and it is a rare occurrence. ATOS is almost exclusively seen in patients with bone abnormalities such as a cervical rib or an abnormality in the spine at the base of the neck. Injury to the axillary artery can also occur in athletes due to compression of the artery near the shoulder from repetitive use. Patients with ATOS and these arterial complications are candidates for surgery.
Patients who require surgery can be confident that they will receive specialized care from an experienced team. Surgery for TOS may involve:
The preferred surgical approach is a 2.5-3 inch incision, or cut, above the collarbone at the base of the neck. Patients with VTOS or ATOS may require repair of veins and arteries, which may involve a second smaller incision below the collarbone. The average stay at Mass General following surgery is one to two days.
The thoracic outlet may also become compressed in an area below the pectoralis minor muscle (a thin, triangular muscle located in the upper chest) and just under the shoulder. This is known as pectoralis minor syndrome. In our experience, this occurs in less than half of our patients. When this is present, it may require an additional surgical procedure performed through a 2-inch incision in the armpit. This is a less extensive procedure than rib removal, and it is typically done on an outpatient basis.
To schedule an appointment or to refer a patient, please call 617-643-8727. Our nurse coordinator will answer any questions that you may have and help schedule an appointment. Our coordinator will also assist with scheduling any necessary tests or procedures.
Making the correct diagnosis is the key to successfully treating TOS. Our research efforts have focused on improving diagnostic techniques. In collaboration with the Mass General Department of Radiology, our researchers have developed unique protocols for MRI and CT scans in diagnosing TOS. Our team has developed two new evaluation strategies that build upon the standard MRI and CT technologies. We recalibrated each technology to develop images that are more detailed than previously available, providing a more accurate diagnosis.
Mass General is consistently ranked among the best hospitals in the country by U.S. News & World Report. Our ranking is based on our quality of care, patient safety and reputation in 16 different specialties. Our commitment to excellence means that we work to ensure that you receive the best care at all points during your visit. Patients of the Thoracic Outlet Syndrome Program at Mass General can benefit from shared expertise, leading research, and our commitment to quality and excellence.
Thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) is an uncommon disorder that results from compression or irritation of the nerves and/or blood vessels in the base of the neck underneath the collarbone.
Rachael Vaters-Carr shares her experience as a patient in the Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS) Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, including the comprehensive and compassionate care she received from her team of specialists.
Dean Donahue, MD, head of the Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS) Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, is a 2016 nominee for the Brian A. McGovern Award for Clinical Excellence. The Massachusetts General Physicians Organization (MGPO) created this award to honor the memory of Brian McGovern, MD, and recognize a physician within the MGPO who shares his dedication, compassion and kindness to all patients and staff.
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome Program
Thoracic Surgery Department, Blake 1570
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