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What is vacuum bell therapy and does it cure pectus excavatum?

What is vacuum bell therapy and does it cure pectus excavatum?

Pectus excavatum is a condition where the sternum is sunken into the chest. Many people with the condition don’t experience any symptoms (other than the chest’s sunken appearance) and don’t choose to have their pectus excavatum repaired.

Some people, however, find that the condition interferes with their lung or heart function and require surgical repair of the condition. You can read more about the surgical options available for pectus excavatum here.

If you have mild pectus excavatum and don’t want to undergo surgery then vacuum bell treatment could be an option. However, there are no clinical studies that prove this treatment has long-term success in adults.

On this page you can find out more about the following:

What is vacuum bell therapy and how does it work?

Vacuum bell therapy is used to correct mild cases of pectus excavatum. It’s primarily used for children and adolescents, rather than adults, because young sternums and ribs are still growing and are therefore more flexible.

Vacuum bell therapy works by placing a suction cup over the sunken area of the chest. The patient then uses a hand pump to suck the air out of the suction cup and create a vacuum. This will cause the chest wall to rise. Once the chest wall has risen, you can remove the hand pump and plug the end of the tubing to form a seal.

You can then leave the device in place for the amount of time recommended by your healthcare practitioner.

Over a period of time, which could be a year or more, some patients find that their pectus excavatum shows signs of permanent improvement. However, for others the chest will sink again as soon as the device is removed.

There are three different sizes of device available so your practitioner will select one according to your age and chest size. There are specially shaped devices available for women which are designed to fit around the breasts.

Can vacuum bell therapy correct pectus excavatum?

Vacuum bell therapy can correct pectus excavatum to some extent. Patients with a mild case of symmetric pectus excavatum and a flexible chest wall are most likely to benefit from this therapy.

Although vacuum bell therapy can be used to treat pectus excavatum in adults, it’s most effective for treating the condition in adolescent patients, particularly in patients going through puberty as the chest wall is likely to be flexible at this stage1.

What results can I expect from using a vacuum bell?

The results of vacuum bell therapy will depend on your age and the severity of your pectus excavatum. Vacuum bell therapy is unlikely to have successful results in adults with severe pectus excavatum. In this case, and if you’re not experiencing any symptoms then implant surgery may be a better option.

In their study ‘Is vacuum bell therapy effective in the correction of pectus excavatum?’ authors Akshay J Patel and Ian Hunt concluded that:

“Vacuum bell therapy has been shown to have higher success rates in those who present earlier, have milder forms of PE, symmetric PE, a more compliant chest wall and lack of costal flaring2.”

Coastal flaring refers to the flared appearance of the lower ribs in some people with pectus excavatum.

The long-term results of using vacuum bell therapy are unclear: one study reported that “long-term results comprising more than 15 years are so far lacking, and further evaluation and follow-up studies are necessary3”.

Multiple clinical studies have reported that there is currently no evidence around the long-term effects of vacuum bell therapy in adults4,5.

How long will I need to use a vacuum bell device for?

To achieve a noticeable difference using vacuum bell therapy, patients need to commit to using the device on a daily basis over a long period of time. Ideally, you should wear the device for several hours a day for many months, or even years, depending on the severity of your condition.

One clinical study found that patients with mild pectus excavatum and who had a flexible chest wall had to have treatment for 12 to 15 months. The same study reported that patients with moderate pectus excavatum and a less flexible chest wall needed treatment for up to three years6.

Some of the adults that took part in the same study wore the device for up to eight hours a day.

Can I buy a vacuum bell? And how much does it cost?

Vacuum bell therapy should be carried out under the supervision of a doctor or other qualified healthcare practitioner. Therefore it’s not advisable to buy a vacuum bell device and perform the therapy yourself.

Vacuum bell therapy is not currently available on the NHS but it is available privately at some clinics.

Bear in mind that the therapy is performed under medical supervision and usually involves regular appointments at an outpatient clinic, so it is unlikely to be a low-cost solution for correcting pectus excavatum.

Considering there are no long-term clinical studies into the effectiveness of vacuum bell therapy in adults, it may be more cost-effective to opt for implant surgery. You can find out more about the results and costs of pectus excavatum implant surgery here.

Before having any treatment for pectus excavatum you may be asked to undergo a series of tests. These could include pulmonary function tests to check whether your lungs are affected by your pectus excavatum and heart function tests such as a CT scan and ECG.

Although you may be able to have these tests on the NHS with a referral from your GP, if you aren’t displaying any symptoms associated with pectus excavatum then you may have to pay for these tests privately.

To find out more about the costs of surgical pectus excavatum repair read our guide Costs, risks and results of pectus excavatum surgery for adults.

To find out more about the symptoms and causes of pectus excavatum read our guide here.

What are the potential side effects of having vacuum bell therapy?

Potential complications and side effects of vacuum bell therapy include:

  • Bruising and swelling
  • Subcutaneous haematoma—ruptured blood capillaries
  • Upper back pain
  • Skin irritation
  • Transient paresthesia (numb sensation) of the upper extremities 7

Before starting vacuum bell therapy, you will have an electrocardiogram and an echocardiogram to check this type of therapy is the correct treatment for you8.

Contraindications for having vacuum bell therapy include musculoskeletal disorders (such as Marfan syndrome, which affects the connective tissue), vasculopathies (diseases that affect the blood vessels), coagulopathies and cardiac disorders9.

You can find out more about the surgical repair options for pectus excavatum with our guide Cost, risks and results of pectus excavatum surgery.

If you’re considering having implant surgery for pectus excavatum then read our guide here or contact Stephen McCulley’s clinic on 0115 962 4535.


  9. [no longer available]