Diagnosis

Pectus excavatum can usually be diagnosed simply by examining the chest. Your doctor may suggest several different types of tests to check for associated problems with the heart and lungs. These tests may include:

  • Chest X-ray. This test can visualize the dip in the breastbone and often shows the heart being displaced into the left side of the chest. X-rays are painless and take only a few minutes to complete.
  • Computerized tomography (CT). A CT scan may be used to help determine the severity of the pectus excavatum and whether the heart or lungs are being compressed. CT scans take many X-rays from a variety of angles to produce cross-sectional images of the body's internal structure. You may be asked to undergo a special CT that looks at the effects of the compression on the heart while breathing in and out.
  • Electrocardiogram. An electrocardiogram can show whether the heart's rhythm is normal or irregular, and if the electrical signals that control the heartbeat are timed properly. This test is painless and involves the placement of more than a dozen electrical leads, which are attached to the body with a sticky adhesive. It is common for a patient with pectus to have an abnormal EKG.
  • Echocardiogram. An echocardiogram is a sonogram of the heart. It can show real-time images of how well the heart and its valves are working. The images are produced by transmitting sound waves via a wand pressed against the chest. An echocardiogram also gives your doctor a look at how the chest wall may be affecting heart function and the flow of blood through the heart.
  • Lung function tests. These types of tests measure the amount of air your lungs can hold and how quickly you can empty your lungs.
  • Exercise test. This test monitors how well your heart and lungs function while you exercise, usually on a bike or treadmill.

Treatment

Pectus excavatum can be surgically repaired, but surgery is usually reserved for people who have moderate to severe signs and symptoms. People who have mild signs and symptoms may be helped by physical therapy. Certain exercises can improve posture and increase the degree to which the chest can expand.

If the depression of your breastbone isn't causing any symptoms but you're unhappy with how it looks, you could talk to a surgeon about having a silicone insert — similar to a breast implant — placed under your skin to fill in that space.

Repair surgery

The two most common surgical procedures to repair pectus excavatum are known by the names of the surgeons who first developed them:

  • Nuss procedure. This minimally invasive procedure uses small incisions placed on each side of the chest. Long-handled tools and a narrow fiber-optic camera are inserted through the incisions. A curved metal bar is threaded under the depressed breastbone, to raise it into a more normal position. In some cases, more than one bar is used. The bars are removed after two or three years.
  • Ravitch technique. This older procedures involves a much larger incision down the center of the chest. The surgeon removes the deformed cartilage attaching the ribs to the lower breastbone and then fixes the breastbone into a more normal position with surgical hardware, such as a metal strut or mesh supports. These supports are removed in six to 12 months.

Most people who undergo surgery to correct pectus excavatum are happy with the change in how their chests look, no matter which procedure is used. Although most surgeries for pectus excavatum are performed around the growth spurt at puberty, many adults also have benefitted from pectus excavatum repair.

Temporarily freezing the nerves to block pain (cryoablation) can help with recovery and decrease postoperative pain for four to six weeks.

Potential future treatments

Doctors are currently studying therapies that use suction or magnets to help raise the depressed breastbone. These devices are best used in younger patients. As people age, the chest becomes more rigid, which limits chest wall movement.

Coping and support

Most adolescents just want to fit in and look like their peers. This can be exceptionally difficult for youngsters who have pectus excavatum. In some cases, counseling may be needed to help master coping skills. Online support groups and forums also are available, where you can talk with people who are facing the same types of problems.

Preparing for your appointment

If you or your child has pectus excavatum, you might first discuss the condition with your family doctor. He or she may refer you to a doctor who specializes in pediatric or thoracic surgery.

What you can do

You may want to write a list that includes:

  • Detailed descriptions of your signs and symptoms
  • Information about past medical problems
  • Information about medical problems common in your family
  • All the medications and dietary supplements you or your child takes
  • Questions you want to ask the doctor, including what treatments are available

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor may ask some of the following questions:

  • When did these signs and symptoms begin?
  • Have they worsened recently?
  • Has anyone else in your family had a similar problem?