Barrel chest happens when the chest is rounded or puffed up like a barrel. When you have a barrel chest, your chest or rib cage will look like you are taking a deep breath all the time. If you look at your chest from the side, it will appear wider from front to back than usual.
Barrel chest isn’t a disease, but it is a sign of several other conditions that can happen in both adults and children.
This article looks at some of the common conditions that can give you a bulging chest and how barrel chest is treated.
Barrel chest happens when the lungs become overfilled (hyperinflated) with air — like a balloon — as they work harder. This keeps the rib cage open or expanded for a long time. This happens most often because of a chronic lung condition, but other diseases and conditions may cause it as well.
The main symptom of barrel chest is a rounded and enlarged appearance of the chest. If you have a barrel chest, you also may have signs and symptoms of other health conditions, such as:
- difficulty breathing
- lung mucous or phlegm
- shortness of breath
- sore or stiff chest
- rib tenderness
- back soreness
- difficult moving or exercising
- posture changes like hunching over
- low oxygen levels
- high carbon dioxide levels
Barrel chest is usually caused by lung conditions. When the lungs overfill with air, they push out the ribs, chest, bones in the upper back. Over time, barrel chest develops.
Barrel chest can sometimes happen to people with conditions that affect the joints in the rib cage and other bones of the chest and back. Some hospital treatments for conditions that affect the lungs may also lead to a barrel chest.
Here are common conditions that may cause barrel chest:
Asthma is the most common cause of a barrel chest in children and adults. Approximately
Some children with severe asthma may also have stomachs that look sunken in. This is because the muscles around and under the lungs are working harder to get air into the lungs. Seasonal allergies, colds, and flu can worsen symptoms in adults and children with asthma.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term for several kinds of lung diseases that occur when airflow is blocked from the lungs. This can happen because of lung swelling, scarring, mucus, and other damage. Symptoms include wheezing, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, and barrel chest.
Most people with COPD have a history of other lung problems like emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and smoker’s cough. Studies show that children with severe asthma have a higher risk of developing COPD in adulthood.
Emphysema is a lung condition that happens when the alveoli — little air sacs or bubbles at the ends of small breathing tubes in the lungs –— are damaged or destroyed. This can happen from smoking, pollution, chemicals, and other irritants getting into the lungs.
Alveoli air sacs are where the blood goes to get oxygen and give off carbon dioxide. When the alveoli are destroyed, large spaces form in the lungs. This makes it harder for the body to get oxygen. The lungs try to help by breathing and holding in more air, leading to a barrel chest.
Cystic fibrosis (CF) is an inherited (genetic) condition that affects the lungs and other parts of the body. This disease makes the mucus in the lungs thick and sticky. The thick mucus can clog the lungs, making it harder to breathe. As an individual works harder to breathe, they may
Arthritis in the rib, back, and chest wall joints can lead to a barrel chest. This is more common in older adults but can happen in children in rare cases. It happens when the ribs and back get so stiff or inflamed they get stuck in an inhale or open position.
Different kinds of arthritis can cause barrel chest, including:
- rheumatoid arthritis
- juvenile idiopathic arthritis
- costochondritis, which is arthritis in the ribs
Other rare genetic conditions can affect the rib cage and bones in the back, triggering a barrel chest. These inherited conditions include:
- pectus carinatum
- Dyggve-Melchior-Clausen syndrome
- Marfan syndrome
Your doctor will likely be able to tell if you have a barrel chest just by looking at you. You may also have an X-ray of your chest and back to confirm.
If you have an underlying lung condition, your doctor may recommend lung function tests like spirometry to see how well your lungs are working. You may also need a blood test to check your blood gases and inflammation levels.
You may need more tests to find out what is causing your barrel chest.
A barrel chest can be diagnosed by your family doctor. You may also need to see a lung specialist, called a pulmonologist, or an arthritis specialist, called a rheumatologist, depending on the cause of this symptom.
While there is no specific treatment for barrel chest, for many people, treating the underlying health condition may significantly reduce barrel chest. If you have a lung condition like asthma or COPD, you will need daily medications to help keep it under control. Managing lung diseases can help prevent barrel chest and other symptoms.
Your doctor may also recommend anti-inflammatory medications and a special diet to help reduce swelling in your lungs and joints. Exercise therapy like swimming, stretches, and yoga may also help.
There is not yet a common treatment to repair a barrel chest. However, researchers are studying ways to repair the rib bones with surgery to help heal a barrel chest in people who have this symptom.
Barrel chest is a symptom of several kinds of health conditions that affect the lungs or joints in the chest and back. It can happen to both children and adults and is usually quite easy for a doctor to diagnose.
In some cases, treating the underlying condition may help improve the appearance of the chest in people with barrel chest, but the condition is generally permanent.