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What is Ectopia Cordis?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Jan 29, 2024
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Ectopia cordis is an extremely rare congenital heart malformation that remains very difficult to treat. Occurrence is .79 in every 10,000 births. In ectopia cordis, the heart forms outside of the chest wall, so it is not protected by the skin or sternum. Other organs may also have formed outside the skin.

To further complicate this difficult presentation, the heart itself is generally improperly formed. It may have defects like Tetralogy of Fallot, pulmonary atresia, atrial and ventricular septal defects, or double outlet right ventricle, among others. Along with heart malformations, children with ectopia cordis may also have cleft palates. The spine can also be formed improperly, causing kyphosis, too great of a C curvature in the thoracic spine.

There is some slim evidence that ectopia cordis may be related to Turner Syndrome. Chromosomal anomalies like Trisomy 18 have also been observed in some children with ectopia cordis. In general, however, there is no recognizable cause for this condition. In one way, this may be comforting to parents who have had a child with ectopia cordis. The condition is unlikely to repeat in future children.

Sadly, most cases of ectopia cordis result in stillbirth or death shortly after birth. A few cases of ectopia cordis have been treated successfully, but this defect still poses the biggest challenge and rate of failure for pediatric cardiothoracic surgeons.

Most cases of ectopia cordis are identified through routine prenatal ultrasound. When a case is suspected, the mother will be referred to a pediatric or fetal echocardiologist who will confirm the diagnosis. To give the child the best possible chance at survival, the baby will be born at a Level 3 hospital, where experienced pediatric cardiologists and surgeons are on hand to immediately address the problems. Birth may be vaginal or Caesarian, as indicated by the high-risk obstetrician.

Parents who receive early diagnosis of ectopia cordis have the option to induce labor early or to have a therapeutic abortion performed. Parents who choose induced labor expect fatality, but may find comfort in naturally giving birth to a child, having a chance to see and hold that child and to say goodbye. Other parents prefer to end the child’s life without holding or seeing him or her. They find this option less painful than continuing the pregnancy. This difficult decision should be carefully weighed with the help of a skilled counselor.

When parents choose to wait and see if their child can be treated, success of treatment depends on the severity of other heart defects, as well as other related problems. In most cases, cardiothoracic surgeons attempt repair of the heart defects before covering the heart and organs with prosthetic skin. Unfortunately, the valves leading to the heart, once replaced inside the chest wall, can kink and cause death. An overwhelming number of birth defects in a child with ectopia cordis can also make repair impossible, and parents may simply choose to do nothing, called compassionate care, rather than subject their child to serious medical interventions with little hope of success.

Those parents who elect treatment may feel a sense of relief even when treatment fails. Treatment can offer parents a sense that they have done everything possible to save their child. With any option, the death of a child is a weighty emotional burden. Seeking help from organizations like Hospice and working with grief counselors can assist over time with the overwhelming feelings of loss.

Though very rare, treatment of ectopia cordis clearly needs greater research to improve outcome. Fetal surgery is still relatively new, but attempting repair prior to birth may be beneficial, and this should be studied for potential value.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon949384 — On May 05, 2014

And our doctor has said our beloved has the same case, with her heart located outside. I can't help but cry and I feel sadness at how she might have once delivered, but I haven't lost hope now, and I pray for a miracle from up above.

By anon283012 — On Aug 01, 2012

It is sad to hear about any baby passing away. My son now five, almost six, was born with the same condition: ectopia cordis. We were told he might not make it, but he lived three days and thanks be to God, we still have him blessing our lives each day.

It hasn't always been this good. Naseem didn't come home until he was 15 weeks old and he has had several operations to fix something or another. There is no real research on this condition, well not at least when I first found out about it (a month before he was born). Naseem was born at Jackson Hospital in Miami, Florida and I owe it to the grace of God through the medical staff at that hospital that he's made it as far as he has. He's going to school this year. There is hope and with early detection there are ways to prevent another sad outcome.

By anon218628 — On Sep 29, 2011

Seven days ago, a boy was born with ectopia cordis in sabalan hospital in ardabil, iran. He died on the third day.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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