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Conceptual overview

General description

The thorax is an irregularly shaped cylinder with a narrow opening (superior thoracic aperture) superiorly and a relatively large opening (inferior thoracic aperture) inferiorly (Fig. 3.1). The superior thoracic aperture is open, allowing continuity with the neck; the inferior thoracic aperture is closed by the diaphragm.

The musculoskeletal wall of the thorax is flexible and consists of segmentally arranged vertebrae, ribs, and muscles and the sternum.

The thoracic cavity enclosed by the thoracic wall and the diaphragm is subdivided into three major compartments:

The mediastinum is a thick, flexible soft tissue partition oriented longitudinally in a median sagittal position. It contains the heart, esophagus, trachea, major nerves, and major systemic blood vessels.

The pleural cavities are completely separated from each other by the mediastinum. Therefore, abnormal events in one pleural cavity do not necessarily affect the other cavity. This also means that the mediastinum can be entered surgically without opening the pleural cavities.

Another important feature of the pleural cavities is that they extend above the level of rib I. The apex of each lung actually extends into the root of the neck. As a consequence, abnormal events in the root of the neck can involve the adjacent pleura and lung, and events in the adjacent pleura and lung can involve the root of the neck.



One of the most important functions of the thorax is breathing. The thorax not only contains the lungs but also provides the machinery necessary—the diaphragm, thoracic wall, and ribs—for effectively moving air into and out of the lungs.

Up and down movements of the diaphragm and changes in the lateral and anterior dimensions of the thoracic wall, caused by movements of the ribs, alter the volume of the thoracic cavity and are key elements in breathing.

Component parts

Thoracic wall

The thoracic wall consists of skeletal elements and muscles (Fig. 3.1):

The manubrium of sternum, angled posteriorly on the body of sternum at the manubriosternal joint, forms the sternal angle, which is a major surface landmark used by clinicians in performing physical examinations of the thorax.

The anterior (distal) end of each rib is composed of costal cartilage, which contributes to the mobility and elasticity of the wall.

All ribs articulate with thoracic vertebrae posteriorly. Most ribs (from rib II to IX) have three articulations with the vertebral column. The head of each rib articulates with the body of its own vertebra and with the body of the vertebra above (Fig. 3.2). As these ribs curve posteriorly, each also articulates with the transverse process of its vertebra.

Anteriorly, the costal cartilages of ribs I to VII articulate with the sternum.

The costal cartilages of ribs VIII to X articulate with the inferior margins of the costal cartilages above them. Ribs XI and XII are called floating ribs because they do not articulate with other ribs, costal cartilages, or the sternum. Their costal cartilages are small, only covering their tips.

The skeletal framework of the thoracic wall provides extensive attachment sites for muscles of the neck, abdomen, back, and upper limbs.

A number of these muscles attach to ribs and function as accessory respiratory muscles; some of them also stabilize the position of the first and last ribs.

Superior thoracic aperture

Completely surrounded by skeletal elements, the superior thoracic aperture consists of the body of vertebra TI posteriorly, the medial margin of rib I on each side, and the manubrium anteriorly.

The superior margin of the manubrium is in approximately the same horizontal plane as the intervertebral disc between vertebrae TII and TIII.

The first ribs slope inferiorly from their posterior articulation with vertebra TI to their anterior attachment to the manubrium. Consequently, the plane of the superior thoracic aperture is at an oblique angle, facing somewhat anteriorly.

At the superior thoracic aperture, the superior aspects of the pleural cavities, which surround the lungs, lie on either side of the entrance to the mediastinum (Fig. 3.3).

Structures that pass between the upper limb and thorax pass over rib I and the superior part of the pleural cavity as they enter and leave the mediastinum. Structures that pass between the neck and head and the thorax pass more vertically through the superior thoracic aperture.

Inferior thoracic aperture

The inferior thoracic aperture is large and expandable. Bone, cartilage, and ligaments form its margin (Fig. 3.4A).

The inferior thoracic aperture is closed by the diaphragm, and structures passing between the abdomen and thorax pierce or pass posteriorly to the diaphragm.

Skeletal elements of the inferior thoracic aperture are:

The joint between the costal margin and sternum lies roughly in the same horizontal plane as the intervertebral disc between vertebrae TIX and TX. In other words, the posterior margin of the inferior thoracic aperture is inferior to the anterior margin.

When viewed anteriorly, the inferior thoracic aperture is tilted superiorly.

Pleural cavities

The two pleural cavities are situated on either side of the mediastinum (Fig. 3.6).

Each pleural cavity is completely lined by a mesothelial membrane called the pleura.

During development, the lungs grow out of the mediastinum, becoming surrounded by the pleural cavities. As a result, the outer surface of each organ is covered by pleura.

Each lung remains attached to the mediastinum by a root formed by the airway, pulmonary blood vessels, lymphatic tissues, and nerves.

The pleura lining the walls of the cavity is the parietal pleura, whereas that reflected from the mediastinum at the roots and onto the surfaces of the lungs is the visceral pleura. Only a potential space normally exists between the visceral pleura covering lung and the parietal pleura lining the wall of the thoracic cavity.

The lung does not completely fill the potential space of the pleural cavity, resulting in recesses, which do not contain lung and are important for accommodating changes in lung volume during breathing. The costodiaphragmatic recess, which is the largest and clinically most important recess, lies inferiorly between the thoracic wall and diaphragm.

Relationship to other regions


The superior thoracic aperture opens directly into the root of the neck (Fig. 3.7).

The superior aspect of each pleural cavity extends approximately 2–3 cm above rib I and the costal cartilage into the neck. Between these pleural extensions, major visceral structures pass between the neck and superior mediastinum. In the midline, the trachea lies immediately anterior to the esophagus. Major blood vessels and nerves pass in and out of the thorax at the superior thoracic aperture anteriorly and laterally to these structures.

Upper limb

An axillary inlet, or gateway to the upper limb, lies on each side of the superior thoracic aperture. These two axillary inlets and the superior thoracic aperture communicate superiorly with the root of the neck (Fig. 3.7).

Each axillary inlet is formed by:

The apex of each triangular inlet is directed laterally and is formed by the medial margin of the coracoid process, which extends anteriorly from the superior margin of the scapula.

The base of the axillary inlet’s triangular opening is the lateral margin of rib I.

Large blood vessels passing between the axillary inlet and superior thoracic aperture do so by passing over rib I.

Proximal parts of the brachial plexus also pass between the neck and upper limb by passing through the axillary inlet.


The breasts, consisting of secretory glands, superficial fascia, and overlying skin, are in the pectoral region on each side of the anterior thoracic wall (Fig. 3.9).

Vessels, lymphatics, and nerves associated with the breast are as follows:

Key features

Vertebral level TIV/V

When working with patients, physicians use vertebral levels to determine the position of important anatomical structures within body regions.

The horizontal plane passing through the disc that separates thoracic vertebrae TIV and TV is one of the most significant planes in the body (Fig. 3.10) because it:

Venous shunts from left to right

The right atrium is the chamber of the heart that receives deoxygenated blood returning from the body. It lies on the right side of the midline, and the two major veins, the superior and inferior venae cavae, that drain into it are also located on the right side of the body. This means that, to get to the right side of the body, all blood coming from the left side has to cross the midline. This left-to-right shunting is carried out by a number of important and, in some cases, very large veins, several of which are in the thorax (Fig. 3.11).

In adults, the left brachiocephalic vein crosses the midline immediately posterior to the manubrium and delivers blood from the left side of the head and neck, the left upper limb, and part of the left thoracic wall into the superior vena cava.

The hemiazygos and accessory hemiazygos veins drain posterior and lateral parts of the left thoracic wall, pass immediately anterior to the bodies of thoracic vertebrae, and flow into the azygos vein on the right side, which ultimately connects with the superior vena cava.

Segmental neurovascular supply of thoracic wall

The arrangement of vessels and nerves that supply the thoracic wall reflects the segmental organization of the wall. Arteries to the wall arise from two sources:

Posterior and anterior intercostal vessels branch segmentally from these arteries and pass laterally around the wall, mainly along the inferior margin of each rib (Fig. 3.12A). Running with these vessels are intercostal nerves (the anterior rami of thoracic spinal nerves), which innervate the wall, related parietal pleura, and associated skin. The position of these nerves and vessels relative to the ribs must be considered when passing objects, such as chest tubes, through the thoracic wall.

Dermatomes of the thorax generally reflect the segmental organization of the thoracic spinal nerves (Fig. 3.12B). The exception occurs, anteriorly and superiorly, with the first thoracic dermatome, which is located mostly in the upper limb, and not on the trunk.

The anterosuperior region of the trunk receives branches from the anterior ramus of C4 via supraclavicular branches of the cervical plexus.

The highest thoracic dermatome on the anterior chest wall is T2, which also extends into the upper limb. In the midline, skin over the xiphoid process is innervated by T6.

Dermatomes of T7 to T12 follow the contour of the ribs onto the anterior abdominal wall (Fig. 3.12C).

Sympathetic system

All preganglionic nerve fibers of the sympathetic system are carried out of the spinal cord in spinal nerves T1 to L2 (Fig. 3.13). This means that sympathetic fibers found anywhere in the body ultimately emerge from the spinal cord as components of these spinal nerves. Preganglionic sympathetic fibers destined for the head are carried out of the spinal cord in spinal nerve T1.

Flexible wall and inferior thoracic aperture

The thoracic wall is expandable because most ribs articulate with other components of the wall by true joints that allow movement, and because of the shape and orientation of the ribs (Fig. 3.14).

A rib’s posterior attachment is superior to its anterior attachment. Therefore, when a rib is elevated, it moves the anterior thoracic wall forward relative to the posterior wall, which is fixed. In addition, the middle part of each rib is inferior to its two ends, so that when this region of the rib is elevated, it expands the thoracic wall laterally. Finally, because the diaphragm is muscular, it changes the volume of the thorax in the vertical direction.

Changes in the anterior, lateral, and vertical dimensions of the thoracic cavity are important for breathing.

Innervation of the diaphragm

The diaphragm is innervated by two phrenic nerves that originate, one on each side, as branches of the cervical plexus in the neck (Fig. 3.15). They arise from the anterior rami of cervical nerves C3, C4, and C5, with the major contribution coming from C4.

The phrenic nerves pass vertically through the neck, the superior thoracic aperture, and the mediastinum to supply motor innervation to the entire diaphragm, including the crura (muscular extensions that attach the diaphragm to the upper lumbar vertebrae). In the mediastinum, the phrenic nerves pass anteriorly to the roots of the lungs.

The tissues that initially give rise to the diaphragm are in an anterior position on the embryological disc before the head fold develops, which explains the cervical origin of the nerves that innervate the diaphragm. In other words, the tissue that gives rise to the diaphragm originates superior to the ultimate location of the diaphragm.

Spinal cord injuries below the level of the origin of the phrenic nerve do not affect movement of the diaphragm.

Regional anatomy

The cylindrical thorax consists of:

The thorax houses the heart and lungs, acts as a conduit for structures passing between the neck and the abdomen, and plays a principal role in breathing. In addition, the thoracic wall protects the heart and lungs and provides support for the upper limbs. Muscles anchored to the anterior thoracic wall provide some of this support, and together with their associated connective tissues, nerves, and vessels, and the overlying skin and superficial fascia, define the pectoral region.

Pectoral region

The pectoral region is external to the anterior thoracic wall and anchors the upper limb to the trunk. It consists of:

Nerves, vessels, and lymphatics in the superficial compartment emerge from the thoracic wall, the axilla, and the neck.


The breasts consist of mammary glands and associated skin and connective tissues. The mammary glands are modified sweat glands in the superficial fascia anterior to the pectoral muscles and the anterior thoracic wall (Fig. 3.16).

The mammary glands consist of a series of ducts and associated secretory lobules. These converge to form 15 to 20 lactiferous ducts, which open independently onto the nipple. The nipple is surrounded by a circular pigmented area of skin termed the areola.

A well-developed, connective tissue stroma surrounds the ducts and lobules of the mammary gland. In certain regions, this condenses to form well-defined ligaments, the suspensory ligaments of breast, which are continuous with the dermis of the skin and support the breast. Carcinoma of the breast creates tension on these ligaments, causing pitting of the skin.

In nonlactating women, the predominant component of the breasts is fat, while glandular tissue is more abundant in lactating women.

The breast lies on deep fascia related to the pectoralis major muscle and other surrounding muscles. A layer of loose connective tissue (the retromammary space) separates the breast from the deep fascia and provides some degree of movement over underlying structures.

The base, or attached surface, of each breast extends vertically from ribs II to VI, and transversely from the sternum to as far laterally as the midaxillary line.

Lymphatic drainage

Lymphatic drainage of the breast is as follows:

Axillary nodes drain into the subclavian trunks, parasternal nodes drain into the bronchomediastinal trunks, and intercostal nodes drain either into the thoracic duct or into the bronchomediastinal trunks.

Breast in men

The breast in men is rudimentary and consists only of small ducts, often composed of cords of cells, that normally do not extend beyond the areola. Breast cancer can occur in men.

In the clinic

Breast cancer

Breast cancer is one of the most common malignancies in women. It develops in the cells of the acini, lactiferous ducts, and lobules of the breast. Tumor growth and spread depends on the exact cellular site of origin of the cancer. These factors affect the response to surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. Breast tumors spread via the lymphatics and veins, or by direct invasion.

When a patient has a lump in the breast, a diagnosis of breast cancer is confirmed by a biopsy and histological evaluation. Once confirmed, the clinician must attempt to stage the tumor.

Staging the tumor means defining the:

Computed tomography (CT) scanning of the body may be carried out to look for any spread to the lungs (pulmonary metastases), liver (hepatic metastases), or bone (bony metastases).

Further imaging may include bone scanning using radioactive isotopes, which are avidly taken up by the tumor metastases in bone.

Lymph drainage of the breast is complex. Lymph vessels pass to axillary, supraclavicular, and parasternal nodes and may even pass to abdominal lymph nodes, as well as to the opposite breast. Containment of nodal metastatic breast cancer is therefore potentially difficult because it can spread through many lymph node groups.

Subcutaneous lymphatic obstruction and tumor growth pull on connective tissue ligaments in the breast, resulting in the appearance of an orange peel texture (peau d’orange) on the surface of the breast. Further subcutaneous spread can induce a rare manifestation of breast cancer that produces a hard, woody texture to the skin (cancer en cuirasse).

A mastectomy (surgical removal of the breast) involves excision of the breast tissue to the pectoralis major muscle and fascia. Within the axilla the breast tissue must be removed from the medial axillary wall. Closely applied to the medial axillary wall is the long thoracic nerve. Damage to this nerve can result in paralysis of the serratus anterior muscle, producing a characteristic “winged” scapula. It is also possible to damage the nerve to the latissimus dorsi muscle, and this may affect extension, medial rotation, and adduction of the humerus.

Muscles of the pectoral region

Each pectoral region contains the pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, and subclavius muscles (Fig. 3.17 and Table 3.1). All originate from the anterior thoracic wall and insert into bones of the upper limb.

Table 3.1

Muscles of the pectoral region

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Muscle Origin Insertion Innervation Function
Pectoralis major