Arterial injuries in the thoracic outlet syndrome

J Vasc Surg. 1995 Jan;21(1):57-69; discussion 70. doi: 10.1016/s0741-5214(95)70244-x.


Purpose: This article reviews experience with arterial injury caused by thoracic outlet syndrome. Special emphasis is placed on the influence of athletic or work activities on the axillary-subclavian artery system and the mechanism by which the humeral head compresses the axillary artery and the circumflex humeral arterial branches.

Methods: Retrospective review identified 34 patients (age range 13 to 67 years) treated for upper extremity symptoms or ischemic complications of thoracic outlet syndrome from 1983 to 1993. Evaluation included assessment of occupational and recreational activities plus duplex ultrasonography and contrast arteriography with positional maneuvers.

Results: Twenty-two patients (27 arms) had subclavian artery injury, which was most commonly caused by compression by a bony abnormality (cervical rib, 16; anomalous first rib, two; cervical rib and anomalous first rib, two). Fourteen of the 27 arms had distal embolization. All 27 had surgical decompression of the subclavian artery; 15 required concomitant arterial reconstruction. Twelve additional patients (nine athletes) had axillary artery involvement, all from arterial compression by the head of the humerus during abduction maneuvers; all had concomitant compression of the posterior circumflex humeral artery. Axillary arterial injury included thrombosis (one), aneurysm (two), and symptomatic extrinsic compression only (nine). Five patients with axillary artery involvement were treated without a surgical procedure; of the remainder, three underwent decompression procedures only, and four had direct arterial repair. In both groups all subclavian and axillary artery reconstructions were patent at last follow-up examination (mean 31 months).

Conclusion: Most patients with thoracic outlet syndrome who have arterial involvement have a bony anomaly causing subclavian artery compression. This study demonstrates that humeral head compression of the axillary artery and its circumflex branches is a surprisingly common pathologic mechanism. Awareness of this condition affords a better therapeutic approach to arterial injuries caused by thoracic outlet syndrome.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Arterial Occlusive Diseases / diagnosis
  • Arterial Occlusive Diseases / etiology
  • Arterial Occlusive Diseases / surgery
  • Athletic Injuries / diagnosis
  • Axillary Artery / injuries*
  • Axillary Artery / pathology
  • Constriction, Pathologic / surgery
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Humerus
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Occupational Diseases / diagnosis
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Ribs / abnormalities
  • Subclavian Artery / injuries*
  • Subclavian Artery / pathology
  • Thoracic Outlet Syndrome / complications*
  • Thoracic Outlet Syndrome / surgery