Barrel chest is a term used to describe a human chest that has started to bulge and appears rounded like a barrel as a result of a permanently partially expanded ribcage. It is not in itself a disease but can be a symptom of one of several medical conditions, including pulmonary emphysema, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), osteoarthritis, or acromegaly, a syndrome that results when excess growth hormone is produced by the pituitary gland. Developing a barrel chest can also simply be a sign of old age. In many cases, the ribcage remains partially expanded because of persistent lung over inflation, resulting in less efficient breathing and possibly shortness of breath. A case is not typically treated, although the underlying cause may be.
Commonly associated with older men, barrel chest can also manifest itself in women and even children. Children who suffer from chronic asthma, cystic fibrosis, a connective tissue disorder, emphysema, or who are obese are most at risk. In many cases, children who develop this problem have chronic asthma and likely endure acute attacks of wheezing, coughing, and dyspnea or shortness of breath. Patients with chronic childhood or adult asthma suffer from airway inflammation that can result in unpredictable flare-ups that interrupt normal breathing. Asthma prevention and treatment commonly involves the use of inhalers like albuterol or other inhaled medications including corticosteroids and allergy medications.
Patients who have contracted COPD can develop an expanded ribcage during the later stages of the disease. COPD is one of the world’s leading causes of death and actually refers to a series of lung diseases, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema, that all cause airflow blockage, chest tightness, and difficulty breathing. One of the primary causes of COPD is a persistent smoking habit and, since lung damage is difficult to heal, treatment emphasizes the prevention of further damage and control of existing symptoms with inhalers or inhaled steroids. Severe cases may require oxygen therapy and surgical treatment.
Some men — and bodybuilders in particular — may seek to achieve the look of a barrel chest by strengthening the chest and back muscles, including the internal and external intercostals, the serratus anterior, and the pectoralis minor and major. The bench press, chest press, pushups, pullovers, swimming, yoga, Pilates, and the pectoral fly are all exercises that can help achieve the barrel chested look associated with male strength. Introducing variation in the angle, weight, sets, and repetitions of a chest exercise can help achieve the desired result more quickly.