Acupuncture treats thoracic outlet syndrome
Thoracic outlet syndrome is a condition that causes wasting of thumb muscle (Gilliatt-Sumner hand), numbness, tingling and loss of grip in the hand, and pain in the neck, shoulder and arm. Thoracic outlet syndrome, also known as TOS, is caused by compression of nerves and blood vessels as they travel through the shoulder into the arm.
Acupuncture treats TOS by relaxing the muscles and ligaments that often entrap the affected nerves and blood vessels. Acupuncture also treats TOS by improving circulation and bringing fresh blood and oxygen to affected tissues to speed healing.
What are the symptoms and causes of thoracic outlet syndrome?
Symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome are varied depending on what is compressed, the nerves or blood vessels. As I mentioned about, the most common symptoms of TOS when nerve compression predominates are wasting of thumb muscle (Gilliatt-Sumner hand), numbness and tingling of the fingers, pain in the neck, arm and shoulder, and loss of grip strength. When compression of the blood vessels is predominant, the hand may become discolored (either bluish or very pale), pain may be more throbbing in nature and be accompanied by swelling, the pulses of the arteries in the arm may be diminished or absent, and black infarcts may develop in the fingers.
Thoracic outlet syndrome causes include physical trauma (like a car accident, anatomical abnormalities (like a cervical rib), repetitive activities (swimmers, pitchers, assembly line workers, people doing lifting), poor posture, and pregnancy (joints become loose in pregnancy, causing bones to shift).
How would a doctor diagnose and treat thoracic outlet syndrome?
A doctor would use a physical exam, medical history, orthopedic and neurological tests, imaging studies (CT scan, MRI, X-rays), electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies to diagnose TOS.
How does an acupuncturist evaluate and treat thoracic outlet syndrome?
Like your doctor, I would complete a physical exam and perform a few orthopedic and neurological tests on a patient coming to my clinic for treatment of thoracic outlet syndrome. I would also take a full medical history to determine any underlying conditions that may exist from a Chinese medicine standpoint. It is also important to determine which acupuncture meridians (more on that topic on the About Chinese Medicine page) are affected. All of these piece of information are combined to inform the treatment plan.
When I treat TOS, I find it particularly beneficial to use cupping and Tuina medical massage as part of the treatment. This encourages the muscles of the neck, shoulder and arm to relax, restoring circulation. Typically, I will perform an acupuncture treatment first, and follow up with the massage and cupping to help consolidate the treatment.
TOS is an instance of when Chinese herbal medicine taken internally may be beneficial.