Plumbing the Pits of Despair with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome

One patient's story

Author: Betty Kovacs, MS, RD
Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

It took three years and three months, three MRI's, two x-rays, two EMG's, and nine health-care professionals for me to feel better. It was a journey that felt like forever with exhausting highs and lows. Each new doctor's appointment was entered into with hope and walked out of in despair. Those who were unable to diagnose my condition were able to make me think that it was all in my head. Fortunately, or unfortunately, my symptoms progressed and out of desperation I gave one last doctor a chance. That last chance saved my sanity and gave me back my life.

My symptoms started off somewhat vague. I had taken on a new position at work that required a lot of time on the computer. I began having pain on my right side in my neck and shoulder with tingling in my hand at the end of the day. I felt a lump on my cervical spine that I assumed to be the cause of the symptoms. I went to an orthopedic surgeon who sent me for an MRI to rule out a tumor. I was assured that he had never seen a tumor in that area, but that did not ease the heart-wrenching fear of a possible tumor. I soon learned that I did not have a tumor and that I was too claustrophobic to ever get back in an MRI machine. I was so relieved that I decided to wait and see if the symptoms went away on their own.

For the next year, I got massages and stopped lifting weights to help with my pain. My outer three fingers on my hand had begun getting cold at the end of the day. As time went on, they would get cold after a few hours. I couldn't tell if the shoulder pain was causing the hand pain or vice versa. I went to a leading hand surgeon to figure out what was going on. The diagnosis was discomforting. I was told that this was simply a case of poor posture and that physical therapy (PT) would correct it. I have been tall my entire life, so my posture is a sensitive area. At 32 years of age, I did not expect to ever hear that I have to sit up straight again.