3 Best Exercises for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

Toracic Outlet Syndrome

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Some days, it seems like everything hurts.  After all, between aging and doing activities using muscles that are usually kicking back relaxing, there are many reasons this might temporarily be the case.

Sometimes, though, it can be more serious.  If you’ve ever noticed neck and shoulder pain in combination with numbness in your fingers, there’s a chance you have Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, or TOS.  

TOS affects your thoracic outlet – the space between your collarbone and first rib.

While it’s usually caused by either trauma or repetitive injury, there are several factors that could contribute. 

Causes of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

TOS can be triggered by either chronic or acute trauma to the thoracic outlet.

Chronic trauma is repeated and involves a longer period of time exposed to a stressful event, like working in a physically demanding job for many years

Acute trauma is a single event, like a car accident or a fall.

The most common causes include:

  • Heavy lifting
  • Accidents
  • Work related injuries (e.g., moving heavy objects)
  • Anatomical defects
  • Poor posture that causes nerve compression
  • Repetitive arm movements

Symptoms of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

There are many possible symptoms of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, and they will depend on which of the three types you have. Some typical ones include:

  • Sleep disorders
  • Stress or depression
  • Pain in the neck, arm or shoulder
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Swelling
  • A feeling of heaviness in the arm

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome Test

So other than noticing symptoms, how can you tell if you have TOS?  The elevated arm stress test, also known as the Roos test, is a physical exercise that may be able to diagnose Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.

How do you do it? 

It’s not too difficult and can be performed at home.  Check out the steps below:

  • Sit or stand with your arms out and bent 90°.  You should be in a “goalpost” position.
  • Open and close your hands slowly and repeatedly for three minutes.  Think about doing the chicken dance.
  • If you are unable to complete the three minutes, or you have pain, heaviness, weakness, numbness, or tingling, you may have a problem with your thoracic outlet.  See your doctor for more comprehensive testing.

Thoracic Outlet Syndrome Exercises and Stretches

A. Exercises for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

Ok.  So you can help relieve symptoms of TOS with exercise.  Anything specific? 

Your focus should be on exercises that target the muscles in your neck, back, and shoulders in order to strengthen and stretch them.  Try some of these:

1. Scapular Retraction

This exercise is not only excellent for mitigating pain, but it will help with your posture.

Good posture will make you appear taller and more confident, as an extra perk! 

scapular retraction step 1
scapular retraction step 2
  • Start by sitting in a sturdy chair.
  • Sit up tall with good posture.  Your ears should be directly above your shoulders, and shoulders should be in line with your hips.
  • Draw your shoulder blades down and back. You’ll feel your chest stretch and open and your back muscles engage.
  • Hold 2 sec, and repeat for 2 sets of 10.

2. Row

The row is a classic move for good reason.  It’s also great for posture.  You’re going to be walking like you’re on the red carpet soon!

row step 1
row step 2
  • Loop a resistance band around a door knob and close it.  Make sure the door is secure and won’t open on you.
  • Hold the ends of the resistance band, drawing your elbows back–keep them close to your body–while also pulling your shoulder blades down and back. You should feel this in your back.
  • Reach forward, decreasing the tension on the band as you return to the starting position.
  • Repeat for 3 sets of 10.

3. Lower Trap Rows

This is a variation on the exercise above with more focus on the lower traps. It’s a little more challenging, and you may need to take a step closer to the door in order to have more slack with the resistance band to perform it.

  • Loop a resistance band around a door knob and close it.  Make sure the door is secure and won’t open on you.
  • Hold the ends of the resistance band, keeping your arms straight – don’t bend your elbows like in the last exercise –  while pulling your shoulder blades down and back. You should feel this in your back and triceps.
  • Repeat for 3 sets of 10.

B. Stretches for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

1. Chin Tucks

Chin tucks are a small move that leads to big results.

chin tuck step 1
chin tuck step 2
  • Sit or stand upright and look straight ahead with your ears directly over your shoulders. Think of a string pulling from the base of your spine, through the crown of your head, and finally to the ceiling.
  • Place a finger on your chin. Without moving the finger, pull the chin and head straight back — as if another string is pulling the back of your head to the wall behind you — until a good stretch is felt at the base of the head and top of the neck. Hold for 5 seconds if possible.
  • Bring the chin forward again to meet the finger where you left it.
  • Repeat for 2 sets of 10 reps.

2. Chest Stretch

Have you ever wanted to get a deep stretch in that hard-to-reach pec area?  This is the one for you:

chest stretch
  • Standing in a doorway, bend your elbows with your forearms pressed to the doorframe on either side.
  • Step forward with one foot until you feel a stretch in your chest.
  • Hold 30 sec and repeat for 3 sets.
  • Note: You can also perform this with one arm instead of two if you want to target one side of your chest.

3. Scalene Stretch

Many people never think about their scalene muscles, but they’re very important for moving your neck. 

This stretch will show you exactly where they’re located: 

  • Place your hands over your chest to the left of your sternum.
  • Gently extend your head towards your right shoulder until you feel a gentle stretch.
  • Hold 30 sec and repeat on the other side.  Do 3 sets.

Do I Need Surgery?

question mark

In short, maybe.  While Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is generally treated with both surgery and therapeutic exercises, it can also be successfully managed through exercises alone for those who have had a shorter duration of symptoms.

Treatment for TOS varies greatly based on the severity; some patients may need to have thoracic outlet syndrome surgery within days while others could wait years.

If the problem persists without treatment, TOS generally leads to more serious symptoms such as paralysis or difficulty breathing. 

In other words, the sooner you recognize you have a problem, the more likely you are to be able to treat the symptoms with exercises alone. 

Never hesitate to make an appointment with your doctor.  Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is treatable as long as it’s caught early.

How to Stop TOS From Recurring

To manage TOS, you can perform daily exercises for the neck and shoulders which, when done on a regular basis, will strengthen the muscles in the area and relieve symptoms like chest tightness, pain or tingling. 

Stretches are another great option that targets various muscles in order to prevent future issues from developing.

Spend a few minutes doing this every day, and practice good posture and lifting techniques, and you’ll likely avoid having to deal with everything we’ve been discussing.

Wondering What's Next?

Discover 11 Easy, At-Home “Stretch Exercises” for Stronger, Pain-Free Joints (click below)

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