What is the role of physical therapy (PT) in the treatment of acute thoracic outlet syndrome?

Updated: Jan 10, 2019
  • Author: Daryl A Rosenbaum, MD; Chief Editor: Sherwin SW Ho, MD  more...
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Physical therapy

Physical therapy that addresses postural abnormalities and muscle imbalance relieves symptoms in most patients with thoracic outlet syndrome by relieving pressure on the thoracic outlet. This is based on 3 potential effects of abnormal static or repetitive postures and positions.

First, increased pressure directly around nerves at various entrapment points or increased tension on nerves creates chronic nerve compression. Second, certain postures maintain muscles in abnormally shortened positions, resulting in a new length. When these adapted muscles are stretched, pain occurs. Third, abnormal posture results in some muscles being stretched and others being shortened to new lengths, resulting in both being placed at a mechanical disadvantage and leading to muscle imbalance. [16] This is the basis for physical therapy.

Although, many conservative protocols for physical therapy are described, few outcome studies have been published. The few studies available demonstrate positive outcomes for most patients. [38, 39, 40]

Patient treatment includes several components that address the brachial plexus nerve compression and muscle imbalance in the cervicoscapular region. Key points emphasized in treatment begin with education. Postural correction focuses on positions of most risk and least risk for compression, with integration into the patient's activities of daily living at work, home, and sleep. For example, patients should avoid overhead arm positions while sleeping. Postural and position correction can be aided by wrist splints, elbow pads, soft neck rolls for nighttime use, and lumbar supports for sitting. In addition, the impact of body habitus and general physical conditioning should be evaluated and discussed (ie, obesity, breast hypertrophy).

Physiotherapy focuses on pain control and range of motion with specific stretching exercises. Stretching should begin with short, tight muscles (ie, upper trapezius, levator scapulae, scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, suboccipitalis) and should not be aggressive. Once pain control and cervical motion are regained, strengthening exercises of the lower scapular stabilizers are begun, as is an aerobic conditioning program. [40, 41] The importance of patient compliance should not be overlooked.

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