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Thoracic outlet syndrome in high-performance athletes.

OBJECTIVE: Repetitive upper extremity use in high-performance athletes is associated with the development of neurogenic and vascular thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS). Surgical therapy in appropriately selected patients can provide relief of symptoms and protection from future disability. We sought to determine the incidence and timing of competitive athletes to return to their prior high-performance level after TOS treatment and surgery.

METHODS: We reviewed all competitive high school, collegiate, and professional athletes treated for venous or neurogenic TOS (nTOS) from 2000 to 2012. Patient demographics, workup, and treatment approaches were recorded and analyzed. Patients with nTOS were assessed with quality of life surveys using the previously validated 11-item version of the Disabilities of the Arm, Shoulder and Hand (QuickDASH) scale, scored from 0 to 100 (100 = worse). Return to full athletic activity was defined as returning to prior competitive high school, collegiate, or professional sports.

RESULTS: During the study period, 41 competitive athletes (44% female) with a mean age of 19 years, were treated, comprising 13 baseball/softball players, 11 swimmers, 5 water polo players, 4 rowers, 2 volleyball players, 2 synchronized swimmers, 1 wrestler, 1 diver, 1 weightlifter, and 1 football player. Twenty-seven athletes (66%) were treated for nTOS, and 14 (34%) had Paget-Schroetter syndrome (PSS). All PSS patients underwent typical treatment of consisting of thrombolysis/anticoagulation, followed by first rib resection. Most nTOS patients were treated according to our previously reported highly selective algorithm, beginning with TOS-specific physical therapy (PT) after the clinical diagnosis was made. Because of mild to modest symptom improvement after PT, 67% of the nTOS athletes evaluated ultimately underwent supraclavicular first rib resection and brachial plexus neurolysis. Return to full competitive athletics was achieved in 85% of all patients, including 93% of the PSS patients and 81% of the nTOS athletes, at an average of 4.6 months after the intervention. In the nTOS cohort successfully returning to prior sports ability, seven (32%) were treated only with PT. Of those athletes who underwent surgery for nTOS, 83% returned to full competitive levels. QuickDASH disability scores improved from a mean of 40.4 preoperatively to 11.7 postoperatively, indicating significant improvement in symptoms after treatment. Recurrence of symptoms was noted in two nTOS (7%) and two PSS (14%) athletes.

CONCLUSIONS: Standardized treatment algorithms for venous and nTOS and aggressive TOS-specific PT are key components to optimizing clinical outcomes in this special cohort of TOS patients. Most athletes treated for venous and nTOS can successfully return to competitive sports at their prior high-performance level.

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