Is it Carpal Tunnel or Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

By Anna Platt

Have you ever had your fingers go numb or “fall asleep” on you for no obvious reason?  Did you think you might have carpal tunnel syndrome from too much work?  What about neck and chest pain?  Now, of course, it is always a good idea to make sure there is nothing serious wrong when these symptoms appear, but sometimes it is just a case of tight muscles.  The guilty muscles are usually the pectoralis minor or the scalenes.  Take a look at these pictures to get an idea of where these muscles are located.

The nerves and blood vessels for our arms pass through or under these muscles, so when the muscle is tight it pinches the nerve or partially cuts off blood flow to the arm.  That is what causes the symptoms I mentioned before.  When this happens, it is called “thoracic outlet syndrome”.   Go ahead and try to feel these muscles on yourself to see if they are tight.

If these muscles are tight, you may want to find a massage therapist who can work on them for you, but here are some ideas of stretches you can do yourself.  Always remember to stretch only until you feel a pull.  Stretching should not be painful.

  1. Tilt your head to one side as far as you can and try to touch your ear to your shoulder.  Use your hand to gently pull your head a little farther toward your shoulder and hold this stretch for 30 seconds.  Repeat on the other side.  Roll your head around slowly in a circle three times clockwise and three times counterclockwise.
  2. Lay on your back on a bed or couch and let one arm dangle off the side and up above your head.  Allow the weight of your arm to stretch out the front of your shoulder.  Hold this for 30 seconds and then place your hand on your shoulder like this while continuing to let your arm dangle.

Use the heel of your hand and put pressure on the pectoralis minor with it.  Slide up and out toward your shoulder socket slowly and with firm pressure.  Repeat this slide several times.  Move your arm around in a circle.  Repeat this on the other side.

  1. You can also stretch the pectoralis minor using a doorway.  Stand in the doorway and place your hands on the doorframe.  Lean forward until you feel a stretch and hold there for 30 seconds.  You can do this stretch one side at a time.

Doing these stretches before you go to sleep each night will help tremendously if you struggle with thoracic outlet syndrome.

Challenge:    try these stretches and tell us what you think!!!

38 thoughts on “Is it Carpal Tunnel or Thoracic Outlet Syndrome”

  1. Ross, thank you for posting this. It is AMAZING how often I run across this in my practice. I’ve had clients having surgery consults that their docs told them they needed that ended up coming to me for a couple of months before hand (per my request before surgery) to see if I could help. And in all but one case I was helpful.

  2. Very Nice Blog Anna.
    I love the door way stretch. I do this everyday. I even catch my boys standing in their room door ways stretching out into the hallway to see what I am calling their name about. lol….I tell them that they are doing a very good stretch. I tried out the palm pressure to the pec area and man I was like ouch..found a tender spot. Thanks for sharing!

  3. My fingers go numb all the time they will usually be numb for about five or maybe ten mins or so, I do massage them when this happens but i never it was from my muscles.

  4. My fingers typically go numb at night while I’m sleeping with my arm bent. It frequently wakes me up, and I have to switch positions. The stretches mentioned above feel great, and really loosen things up! I’m going to start running through these stretches at night before I go to bed so that I can sleep more comfortably. Thanks for the information Ross!!

  5. My fingers will go numb on and off. But I also have a lot of chest pain. When I went to the doctor they said nothing was wrong. I have to just drink a lot of water and eat healthier foods. Which I already do, but I’m still having pains.So I’m going back to the doctors and really see what is going on. Beacuse, I think it might be a little more serious.

  6. This was a very interesting blog, I loved all the stretches. With my case I have bone spurs in most of my joints especially my wrists and if I bend them for to long my fingers go numb. With these stretches tho they helped build up stamina and strength in my hand so they will not go numb as fast I am sure if i keep this up I can get rid of it all together. I loved the #2 stretch I saw and felt the most results from that. Thanks again for the great blog it was great!

  7. After this week’s reading material I am starting to really think that I just have a lot of arm and upper body muscle tightness. These stretches have helped relieve pain that I have been dealing with for no reason lol. Thanks!

  8. Very Nice blog. I have never had an issue with my hands or fingers going numb but if I do I will know how to alleviate the tight muscles.

  9. Though the arm dangling exercise is pretty lax, I prefer the doorway stretch more. I really don’t get finger or arm numbing feelings unless m sleeping improperly on my arm or holding my head on my hand with the whole weight on my elbow on the table. Pretty interesting stretches and good knowledge for people who have this happen to them a lot.

  10. I have had some problems with costochondritis lately (a cracking chest) and my fingers have been going numb. I had no idea the two could even possibly be related. I am going to try these techniques to see if it helps. Thank you!

  11. Client homework is highly valuable in Carpal Tunnel/Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, especially with with clients who are willing to work with their therapist. This blog is an excellent tool to utilize, especially with people who claim at least once a year to have Carpal Tunnel.

  12. Loved the blog!! I am constantly dealing with numbness in my forearm area and was always told that it had something to do with poor circulation. Cannot wait to start using these exercises more often. Love the information shown and enjoy learning about the differences with Carpal Tunnel and thoracic outlet. Thanks

  13. I want to try the door stretch but I already do the ear to the shoulder and I also add my other arm stretching out as I put my left ear to my left shoulder I stretch my right arm down and out.

  14. I already knew about the side neck stretch and it works well when I have tension in my lateral neck/pecs, but I didn’t know it helped with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. I will definitely use these stretches as homework for clients who might have TOS or just tight muscles there in general. The door stretch looks absolutely wonderful and I can see how it would help with tightness in the pecs and scalenes.

  15. I really liked the stretch in the doorway. I could feel that stretch the best out of all of them. Doing these at night will really help me through the day, especially considering how I sleep.

  16. I use all of these stretches each night before I lay down. I find that I sleep better in the long run no matter what stretches I do, and when I don’t stretch I toss and turn all night. I will continue to do my stretches before bed because when I sleep it’s not for very long so I at least want it to be deep.

  17. this was really awesome I loved the pictures!!! and the easy ways to help fix the problems. I have had chest pains before but it was NOT my muscles so great to make sure to check that out!!!

  18. I like the neck stretch. My C3 is out of place and these stretches help ease the pain. I also like the doorway pec stretch. I am guilty of slumping over most of the time bc I spend a lot of time on the computer at work and this stretch helps ease the soreness that the slumped over position causes.

  19. I love the doorway stretch! i do that one all the time to help open my chest area and help me take deeper breaths! It also helps with shoulder movement as the shoulder gets stretched out.

  20. Great blog! I love these stretches with the doorway stretch being my favorite. I have some pretty consistent pinky numbness problems (intermittent depending on arm position). I’m curious to see if any of these help! Thanks!

  21. I have always done the doorway stretches. So I am familiar with them. The neck stretches felt really good will have to do more often!

  22. These stretches are great! I love the neck stretch. It really helps with my headaches I’ve noticed. The doorway stretch also feels really good and I’m going to be doing these more often!

  23. I’ve not had any issues with chest pain, but I am always up for a good stretch, and loved the ones you suggested! I will remember this info when I encounter clients who might benefit from these techniques.

  24. I tried these exercises and found to be very beneficial. I highly recommend other people trying these as well. I believe many other people would benefit from them as well.

  25. i love these stretches, i dont have the problems listed in this blog but i do have tightness in my minor. the muscles feel a little loser now that i have done the stretches.

  26. I have been tested before for Carpal Tunnel. The test was easy, the doctor placed an small needle on my wrist and forearm while it sent little charges. The charges was to be testing the degree of damage if any. I was diagnosed with mild to moderate about 3-4 years ago. However now I can just be texting someone and my pinky fingers will go numb within minutes

  27. I have never had any of the numbing or tingling feelings that you described but I did find that my pectoralis minors are quite tender and tight. I really liked the homework for standing in a doorway. It’s easy and quick just the way I like it. Thanks for this, I plan to use it often.

  28. Awe!! the door way stretch!!! It is divine!! I have had numbing and tingling feelings but I didn’t stretch , I just spoke positively to my wrists and eventually the numbness and tingling it went away. I have not had a problem with it since.

  29. I love learning all of these self treatments so we can give our clients good homework and also great homework for ourselves. I like the doorway stretch most of all and will be using this often.

  30. I have used the doorway stretch before, and very often! Its a swell way to get what you need done. I will definatley have to try the others.

  31. I really like these stretches. I like the technique were you lie on your back and let your arms hang and then I move my arms forward and let them hang I do this all the time it feels so good.

  32. Stretching is a daily habit of mine. I find myself stretching after every workout and every time after I get out of the shower. When I started my first desk job, big mistake, I was having very bad shoulder pain. I went to a massage therapist and she showed me some door way stretches that I continually practice and have had great results from.

  33. This was an interesting blog because my arms and fingers goes numb all the time but i never knew if was from my muscles being so tight. When ever this happens i’ll massage them for about maybe five mins then it goes away then i feel fine.

  34. I have been practicing a lot of this technique on my husband who is having a terrible time with hands and fingers going numb. Seems if I work on him he sleeps a lot better without problems. I hope I can get to the bottom of this with this info. I have also been reading an interesting book on trigger point massage techniques which we did touch on during classes but this book is awesome.

  35. These steps is great! I know I will be using this and passing it to my future clients. I really enjoyed the “door way” stretch! My arms and shoulders have been tender.