Friday, January 11, 2019

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome: A Pressing Matter

by Julia Glick, PT
 If you follow the NBA you have most likely heard that Markelle Fultz, the Philadelphia 76ers’ guard, has thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS). We most commonly hear of athletes from baseball developing this, but rarely basketball – in fact, basketball player Ben Uzoh wasn’t diagnosed until he retired, even though he had previously experienced TOS symptoms. It also took visits to more than 10 clinicians before Fultz was diagnosed with neurogenic TOS. But what does that mean and why was it so hard to diagnose? 
The thoracic outlet is the area between the first rib and collarbone, through which the majority of the nerves and arteries/veins that enter the arm pass. In TOS something in this space narrows and compromises either the nerves or vasculature (arteries/veins). A person with TOS usually has pain, temperature changes, or numbness/tingling at the neck, shoulder, arm, or hand.

Part of what makes it so difficult to diagnose is that there are no standard diagnostic criteria for TOS. There are also several presentations: neurogenic, vascular, and non-specific. With neurogenic TOS, the brachial plexus (nerves that pass through the thoracic outlet) are compressed and will usually cause pain and/or weakness. Features of vascular TOS tend to look more like coldness and numbness, as the arteries and veins are compressed. Regardless of presentation, these symptoms are often difficult to reproduce because they can change based on the position of the head, neck, shoulders and arms.

There are no specific causes for TOS, which often makes it even harder to diagnose. Past trauma or overuse, such as in overhead sports, could possibly increase the likelihood of developing TOS. Anatomically, someone is more at risk if they have an extra upper rib or have any type of tightness of fascia or muscle that decrease the amount of space of the thoracic outlet.

Presently, there are several treatment options for TOS: physical therapy, injection, and first rib removal surgery. In physical therapy, the goals are to restore full range of motion of the shoulder and neck, decrease any restrictions that are impinging on the nerves as they pass through the thoracic outlet, decreasing pain, and improving strength. Fultz has been attending physical therapy, and his agent has reported improvements: they hope he will return in the 2018-2019 season. Here’s hoping for a full recovery for Fultz! 

Baumann, M. (2018, December 4). What baseball can tell us about Markelle Fultz’s latest diagnosis. 

Bell, S. (2018, December 10). What is thoracic outlet syndrome, and what does it mean for Markelle Fultz?

Povlsen B, Hansson T, Povlsen SD. Treatment for thoracic outlet syndrome. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 11. Art. No.: CD007218. DOI: 10.1002/

Retrieved from:  

Retrieved from:

Smith, J. (2018, December 4). Sixers announce Markelle Fultz out indefinitely, reveal plan for injury. 

Wojnarowski, A. (2018, December 5). 76ers’ Markelle Fultz has thoracic outlet syndrome, to miss 3-6 weeks.