Thoracic outlet syndrome: A neurological and vascular disorder

Zachary Klaassen, Edward Sorenson, R. Shane Tubbs, Rahul Arya, Patrick Meloy, Rajnil Shah, Samuel Shirk, Marios Loukas

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


Thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) is a condition arising from compression of the subclavian vessels and/or brachial plexus as the structures travel from the thoracic outlet to the axilla. Despite the significant pathology associated with TOS, there remains some general disagreement among experts on the specific anatomy, etiology, and pathophysiology of the condition, presumably because of the wide variation in symptoms that manifest in presenting patients, and because of lack of a definitive gold standard for diagnosis. Symptoms associated with TOS have traditionally been divided into vascular and neurogenic categories, a distinction based on the underlying structure(s) implicated. Of the two, neurogenic TOS (nTOS) is more common, and typically presents as compression of the brachial plexus; primarily, but not exclusively, involving its lower trunk. Vascular TOS (vTOS) usually involves compression of the vessel, most commonly the subclavian artery or vein, or is secondary to thrombus formation in the venous vasculature. Any anatomical anomaly in the thoracic outlet has the potential to predispose a patient to TOS. Common anomalies include variations in the insertion of the anterior scalene muscle (ASM) or scalenus minimus muscle, the presence of a cervical rib or of fibrous and muscular bands, variations in insertion of pectoralis minor, and the presence of neurovascular structures, which follow an atypical course. A common diagnostic technique for vTOS is duplex imaging, which has generally replaced more invasive angiographic techniques. In cases of suspected nTOS, electrophysiological nerve studies and ASM blocks provide guidance when screening for patients likely to benefit from surgical decompression of TOS. Surgeons generally agree that the transaxillary approach allows the greatest field of view for first rib excision to relieve compressed vessels. Alternatively, a supraclavicular approach is favored for scalenotomies when the ASM impinges on surrounding structures. A combined supraclavicular and infraclavicular approach is preferred when a larger field of view is required. The future of TOS management must emphasize the improvement of available diagnostic and treatment techniques, and the development of a consensus gold standard for diagnosis. Helical computed tomography offers a three-dimensional view of the thoracic outlet, and may be valuable in the detection of anatomical variations, which may predispose patients to TOS. This review summarizes the history of TOS, the pertinent clinical and anatomical presentations of TOS, and the commonly used diagnostic and treatment techniques for the condition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)724-732
Number of pages9
JournalClinical Anatomy
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jul 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • anatomy
  • axilla
  • brachial plexus
  • subclavian vessels
  • thoracic outlet syndrome

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Histology


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