Located in the upper torso—specifically around the rib cage area as well as the spine and sternum—the thoracic section of the body contains, among other vital organs, the lungs. In some individuals, a condition known as thoracic insufficiency syndrome occurs, in which changes in the thoracic “cage” cause a narrowing of space, hampering the ability of the lungs to function normally. Essentially, there is simply not enough room for the lungs to inflate and deflate—respiration requires space for the ribs, spine and breastbone to move backwards and forwards—resulting in breathing problems.

Most commonly, thoracic insufficiency syndrome arises from an underlying spinal condition such as an abnormal curvature of the spine (scoliosis) or from malformed ribs or vertebral bones, and most of the conditions are congenital (present at birth). One specific condition especially—hypoplastic ribs, in which the bones have failed to form properly during the pre-natal stage of development—is a leading cause of thoracic insufficiency syndrome.

Because the space in which lungs can operate has been constricted, the most obvious symptom of this disorder is an inability to breathe normally. Additionally, as a child afflicted with thoracic insufficiency syndrome develops, there may be continuing abnormalities in the formation of the chest, compounding the breathing issues, worsening the symptoms and requiring more drastic treatments such as ventilator assistance.

Typically a physician will arrive at a diagnosis of thoracic insufficiency syndrome through imaging tests (x-rays and CT scans specifically) as well as tests of lung function. And depending on the exact underlying problem leading to this diagnosis, treatment may take various forms. Some patients may be required to wear a bracing device in order to stabilize this section of the body and allow for normal development, whereas for others surgery may be necessary to implant artificial ribs (vertical expansion prosthetics) in an effort to create more space for the lungs to operate.