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Tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands--medical researchers aren't sure exactly how many--of people around the world develop a condition of chronic dull pain after injury called thoracic outlet syndrome. Causing pain in an arm that can radiate down to the hand or across to the chest and head, this condition most commonly occurs after injury in a car crash, but it can also occur as the result of deterioration of nerves, blood vessels, or both, due:
- Sports injuries.
- Repetitive motion injuries, especially using a nonergonomic keyboard.
- Bad posture, slouching to one side.
- Being born with an extra rib at the top of the rib cage, or a tight band of tissue near the neck.
In rare cases, thoracic outlet syndrome is a complication of a tumor.
Thoracic outlet syndrome due to nerve damage affects 3 to 4 times as many women as men, but a variety of the condition caused by damage to veins is more common in men than in women, and the variety of the condition caused by damage to arteries is equally common in both sexes.
Symptoms of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome
The primary symptom of thoracic outlet syndrome is pain in the upper arm or adjacent parts of the body that just won't go away, and that always gets worse when it is cold. Thoracic outlet syndrome may a recurring condition, triggered by doing heavy manual labor, increasing weights in a workout routine, or spending unusually long hours at a computer keyboard while slouched to one side. The pain most commonly is described as dull, but it may also be sharp, stabbing, or burning. Sometimes the pain is felt only in the fourth and fifth fingers of one hand, or just one part of the arm, or even on one side of the neck, one side of the chest, or one side of the face and head. Because stroke can cause the same pattern of pain, diagnosis by a doctor is critical.
Traditional Treatment of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome
Ice packs to relieve pain don't work well for thoracic outlet syndrome, and constant application of moist heat usually is not practical.
People who have thoracic outlet syndrome are often offered steroid injections into a joint or a muscle as a quick fix for their pain. The injections usually work at first, but larger and larger doses are necessary as time goes on, with more and more side effects, such as weight gain, fluid retention, and decreased immunity.
Physical therapy and specific exercises are often highly effective in relieving the pain of thoracic outlet syndrome, but getting results takes months. And prescription and non-prescription pain relievers such as Aspirin, Tylenol, oxycodone, morphine, and fentanyl, as well as antidepressants and anticonvulsants also relieve pain, at least temporarily but cause serious problems of their own.