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Dr. Thompson Hits Milestone for Rare Vein Compression Surgery

Vascular surgeon Robert W. Thompson, MD, performed the 1,000th operation at Barnes-Jewish Hospital to treat a rare type of thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS), a group of potentially disabling disorders that occur when blood vessels or nerves become compressed in the space between the collarbone and the first rib. TOS can cause chronic pain, long-term restrictions of the upper extremities and limb-threatening complications even in relatively young, active and otherwise healthy individuals.

Dr. Thompson is the only surgeon in the world to perform this number of procedures targeting venous TOS, which is caused by damage to the major veins in the lower neck and upper chest. Dr. Thompson is founder and director of the Center for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.

“Venous TOS is considered a rare condition, but one for which we have unique and special expertise,” Dr. Thompson says. “The fact that this was the 1,000th operation done here for venous TOS is a milestone that to our knowledge has never been previously reached, anywhere, anytime. It reflects that over the past 10 years our multidisciplinary TOS Center has built up an internationally-recognized program that has the highest volume of patient visits and operations anywhere.”

Repetitive movement is among the leading causes of TOS, which makes athletes, dancers and musicians particularly susceptible. Because of that, Dr. Thompson has performed surgery on dozens of elite athletes, including Major League Baseball pitchers, as well as many performers. However, TOS can also be caused by heavy lifting, falls and other injuries so the condition can develop in a variety of individuals.

For many patients, the condition is debilitating to the point where they are unable to work or carry out normal daily activities. The syndrome is poorly understood and difficult to diagnose because its symptoms can mimic those caused by other neurogenic conditions such as cervical spine degeneration, herniated discs and carpal tunnel syndrome. Even with a diagnosis in hand, patients with TOS often receive contradictory treatment recommendations and confusing advice. When Dr. Thompson launched the TOS Center about 10 years ago, it became the first multidisciplinary center in the country to focus specifically on TOS. With support from The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital, the Center then hosted the first nationwide professional conference and patient support meeting on TOS. The conference resulted in the first textbook on the subject.

“One of the frustrations with TOS is that it doesn’t get recognized,” Dr. Thompson says. “Even now, more than 50 percent of the patients we see have had symptoms for more than two years without a diagnosis.” Because of Dr. Thompson’s experience and successful track record with TOS surgeries, the Center draws some 400+ new patients a year, representing 48 states and as far away as Ireland, Israel and Russia. 

For further information, please contact Jaclyn Stewart-Strothmann, philanthropy officer, at 314-286-0450 or Jaclyn.StewartStrothmann@bjc.org.

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