Pectus Carinatum (A chest wall deformity)

Often called “pigeon breast,” pectus carinatum is caused when the sternum (breastbone) is pushed outward. This often causes pain during exercise or during times of increased breathing.

Pectus carinatum occurs more often in males than females (4:1 ratio), and develops somewhat later in males than it does in females. It often increases in severity with age and generally worsens during growth spurts that occur during late childhood and adolescence.  

Although pectus carinatum sometimes interferes with overall health, it generally does not interfere with heart and lung function.

The cause of this abnormality is unknown, but the fact that it tends to recur in families suggests that genetics may play a role.

Excessive growth and structural abnormalities of cartilage (tough, connective tissue) of the ribs and breastbone are present in pectus carinatum.

Also, it is seen in some inherited connective tissue disorders such as Marfan syndrome and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and in homocystinuria, which is a metabolic disorder. When pectus carinatum is present in infancy, it is sometimes linked with premature fusion of segments of the sternum and ribs and congenital heart disease (Noonan syndrome).

For the most part, children with pectus carinatum do not have symptoms. However, some children may sometimes have trouble playing and exercising and some may have tenderness and intermittent pain in the area of overgrown cartilages.

Some children with pectus carinatum also have scoliosis (curvature of the spine).

Some have mitral valve prolapse, a condition in which the heart mitral valve functions abnormally.

Connective tissue disorders involving structural abnormalities of the major blood vessels and heart valves are also seen.

Although rarely seen, some children have other connective tissue disorders, including arthritis, abnormal growth, visual impairment and healing impairment.

Most patients undergo a chest X-ray during their initial evaluation. This helps the surgeon screen for other chest abnormalities or scoliosis. A child may also have a CT scan to define the anatomy of the chest. In severe cases of breathing symptoms, a pulmonary function test may be done to determine the degree to which lung function is compromised.

A patient may also have an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) and an echocardiogram. An ECG is a test that records both normal and abnormal electrical activity of the heart. An echocardiogram is a procedure that uses sound waves to study the structures and function of the heart.

External bracing (Orthotic) technique.External bracing (Orthotic) technique.

External Bracing (Orthotic) Technique 

In children up to age 18 who have mild to moderate pectus carinatum and are highly motivated to avoid surgery, the use of a custom-fitted chest-wall brace pushing directly on the sternum produces excellent outcomes.

Willingness to wear the brace as required is essential for the success of this treatment approach. The brace works in much the same way as braces works to correct the alignment of teeth. It consists of front and back compression plates that are anchored to aluminum bars. These bars are bound together by an adjustable leather strap on each side.

This device is easily hidden under clothing and must be worn over a T-shirt for at least 16 hours a day for a minimum of two years or until full height is reached. Children are taught how to tighten the straps of the brace so to gradually increase the pressure applied to their chest. Parents learn how to check to see if adequate pressure is being applied. Pediatric surgeons monitor progress at office visits every six months.

Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center is currently one of only a few centers in the country to offer this non-surgical option. Results of a recent study conducted by our team of pediatric surgeons found that most children managed with bracing showed significant correction of their deformity within the first year of treatment. This study is published in the January 2006 issue of the Journal of Pediatric Surgery.

Surgery is a possible treatment option if external bracing is contraindicated or fails. 

Last Updated 11/2013