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What Causes Barrel Chest & How Is It Treated?

What is Barrel Chest?

Barrel Chest refers to a deformity of the chest where it looks rounded and bulging and has a shape of a barrel. It is not a medical condition but in almost all the cases indicates an underlying problem. Barrel Chest is mostly seen in people with emphysema which is a part of COPD. This can be seen in the advanced stage of the disease.

The reason behind it is that the lungs get inflated excessively with air and this causes the ribcage to be inflated at all times. This causes the breathing to become problematic causing the individual to have shortness of breath.[1]

In some cases, people develop Barrel Chest as they get old. This happens when the ribs angle outwards at the area where it joints the spine and remains fixed in an expanded position. This can be observed more clearly in older adults with also at times presence of kyphosis. There is no treatment required for Barrel Chest unless the cause is something serious like emphysema where the cause will have to be treated.[1]

Barrel Chest may make it harder for an individual to breathe normally. In some cases arthritis may also cause an individual to have a Barrel Chest. This article highlights some of the potential causes of Barrel Chest and different ways to manage the condition.[1]

What Causes Barrel Chest?

What Causes Barrel Chest?

The causes for Barrel Chest are different for adults and children. While in adults, COPD and osteoarthritis is the most common cause for Barrel Chest, it is cystic fibrosis or asthma that causes children to have a Barrel Chest. The details of all the causes of Barrel Chest have been explained below.[2]

Osteoarthritis: This is a condition that causes gradual degeneration of the bones and joints. This is seen mostly in people over the age of 50. Osteoarthritis can cause an individual to have a Barrel Chest if it occurs in the joints where the ribs connect to the spine. Due to osteoarthritis, the ribs lose their flexibility and ultimately may protrude outwards. The ribs also become extremely stiff.[2]

COPD: This is the most common cause of Barrel Chest. COPD has two distinct conditions namely emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Emphysema is the condition which results in an individual having Barrel Chest. COPD makes it very hard for an individual to breathe normally and the symptoms continue to get worse as the condition progresses with time [2].

COPD damages the lungs in that they impact their ability to inflate and contract when inhaling and exhaling air. The air sacs in the lungs also get damaged as a result of COPD. The airways get inflamed and swollen which makes it tough for the patient to breathe.[2]

Because of COPD, the shape of the chest changes and it looks more like a barrel. Since the air gets trapped within the lungs the ribs remain expanded which results in Barrel Chest deformity. This happens normally in the advanced stages of COPD.[2]

Emphysema: This is also a common cause for Barrel Chest. This is because emphysema causes the lungs to stay inflated constantly due to the trapped air within the lungs. This gives the chest the appearance of a barrel. Additionally, an individual with emphysema will also have difficulty breathing and doing normal activities of daily living becomes a challenge.[2]

As of now, there is no cure for COPD and emphysema but treatments are available to control the symptoms and certain lifestyle changes may improve the quality of life of the affected individual. These steps include abstaining from smoking, using inhalers on a regular basis, taking medications as directed by the physician, eating a balanced diet, and try and do low impact exercises as often as possible. Research is still ongoing as to determine whether the appearance of a Barrel Chest is linked to the severity of Barrel Chest and emphysema.[2]

Cystic Fibrosis: This is the cause of Barrel Chest mostly in children. Cystic Fibrosis is a genetic disorder in which there is accumulation of excess mucous throughout the body. In majority of the cases, the diagnosis of this condition is made by the time the child is 2 years of age. When mucous accumulates in the lungs, it leads to the child being vulnerable to various infections and there can be severe damage done to the lungs causing the child to have Barrel Chest.[2]

Some studies suggest a close connection between asthma in children and the development of a Barrel Chest. It is seen that children who have a Barrel Chest often tend to have slower growth rates.[2]

How is Barrel Chest Treated?

With regard to treatment for Barrel Chest, treating the underlying cause is the primary aim of the physicians. This is because most of the cases of Barrel Chest are caused due to lung damage and thus preventing the damage may result in preventing the individual from having Barrel Chest.[2]

In cases where COPD or emphysema is believed to be the cause of Barrel Chest, as of now there is no cure for this condition and treatment is aimed at only controlling the symptoms and making it easy for the patient to breathe and improve the quality of life of the individual. This is done by using bronchodilators and steroids.[2]

Barrel Chest that is caused due to osteoarthritis is quite difficult to control but NSAIDs are more often used to decrease swelling of the tissues. Children with cystic fibrosis resulting in Barrel Chest can do physical therapy aimed at the chest and back to release the accumulated mucous in the area.[2]

However, despite all the treatments and therapy it is quite difficult to reverse the Barrel Chest that is caused due to cystic fibrosis. This is because of the disease and the symptoms being incurable and continuing to progress despite treatment.[2]

In conclusion, Barrel Chest is not a medical condition but a deformity that is the result in majority of the cases of COPD and emphysema. Osteoarthritis is yet another cause for an individual to have Barrel Chest. This is yet another condition which progresses gradually and the treatment is aimed at controlling the symptoms. Cystic Fibrosis is the most common cause for children to have Barrel Chest.[2]

All the conditions mentioned above damage the lungs and cause them to be constantly inflated. This is the reason why the chest begins to protrude out giving it a shape of a barrel. As stated, the treatment for Barrel Chest is formulated depending on the cause of it and the severity of the lung damage. COPD, emphysema, osteoarthritis all do not have a cure and the treatment is aimed at controlling the symptoms. Making lifestyle changes and eating a balanced diet is the key at improving the quality of relief and keep the symptoms at minimum.[2]

For children with cystic fibrosis, preventing mucous from building around the chest along with aggressive physical therapy aimed at the chest and back quite often keeps the symptoms under control even though it may not be possible to prevent Barrel Chest.[2]


Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:October 14, 2019

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