Poland Syndrome is a rare congenital abnormality involving the
chest wall and the arm, displaying differing degrees of severity
and of functional and aesthetic impairments. The role of paediatric
surgeons is restricted to severe cases requiring plastic surgery
on the chest owing to clear malformations and asymmetries or to
the risk of trauma for the chest viscera. In the paediatric age
the chest malformation may require costal transposition, correction
of the sternal malformation (sternal depression or protrusion),
or minimum plastic surgery on the chest with a prosthesis.
This work shall describe Poland Syndrome from a clinical, genetic
and diagnostic-therapeutic point of view, with case histories
from the Giannina Gaslini Institute, which is a reference centre
for this malformation.
Poland Syndrome (PS) is named after Alfred Poland, who described
it in 18411, although other sporadic cases had already been described.
In his work1, Poland described a range of several abnormalities,
among which the absence of the pectoralis major and pectoralis
minor muscles and syndactyly. In fact PS has over the years expanded
to include other features, described by the scientific research
works that followed on the subject, and we can now state that
it displays a broad range of possible homolateral congenital abnormalities.
It indeed displays variable combinations of chest hypoplasia/aplasia
with costal involvement, or involving the pectoralis major muscle
(usually the sternocostal head) and the pectoralis minor muscle,
with or without an ipsilateral involvement of the arm (brachysyndactyly).
A compulsory diagnostic criterion for PS is the presence of aplasia
or hypoplasia of the pectoralis major muscle figure 1 and at least
one combined abnormality. Among these, the most frequent are costal
aplasias/hypoplasias, depressions of the chest wall, atelia or
amastia, absence of axillary hair, hypoplasia of subcutaneous
fat, radius hypoplasia and hand malformations figure 2. The malformations
affecting the hand vary substantially and are not related to the
severity of the chest malformations.
The incidence of PS is rated around 1/30,000 born alive2.
The right-hand side of the body is affected twice as often as
the left side and there is a male preponderance versus females
quoted as 3 to 2. The most common abnormality is the absence of
the pectoralis major muscle.
PS usually appears in a sporadic and unilateral form, even though
a bilateral case has been described3.
The cause of PS is unknown. This abnormality is congenital and
sets in during the embryonic life. PS may be caused, in some cases,
by an anomalous foetal vascularization with ischemia affecting
the tributary territory of the subclavian and vertebral arteries
and/or of one of their branches during foetal development. The
embryonic stage during which it has been suggested that an interruption
may take place in the embryonic blood supply of the subclavian
arteries is around the 6th week of pregnancy. During this week
the pectoralis major muscle divides into its clavicular and costal
heads, from which the pectoralis minor muscle and the sternocostal
head of the pectoralis major muscle later originate4. Furthermore,
during the 6th week the fingers develop by starting to separate
from each other. Lastly, during the same week, the vascular pattern
from the 6th arch differentiates into the vertebral and subclavian
branches. Researchers speculate that an ischemic event, or else
a traumatic intrauterine event, may alter the migration and differentiation
of the cells which are to form the pectoral muscles5,6.
The term SADS, which stands for the English words “Subclavian
Artery Supply Disruption Sequence”, was suggested7 for a
range of abnormalities which shared a common etiopathogenic event,
that is an intrauterine damage to the blood supply coming from
the subclavian artery, owing to traumas, extrinsic pressure or
edemas. Such abnormalities can be diagnosed at time of birth and
include, among the others, besides PS, the Klippel-Feil anomaly,
the Möbius Syndrome, transverse limb defects and the Sprengel
A higher incidence of leukaemia in patients suffering from PS
has been reported8.
In most cases PS is sporadic, with a negligible risk of reoccurrence
in the same family.
In a few cases literature has described a dominant autonomic transmission
with incomplete penetrance, in which the anomaly was transmitted
by the affected father to the son9. Furthermore, a typical case
of left-side PS was described in two second cousins10, as well
as a family displaying for three subsequent generations the unilateral
absence of the pectoralis major, of the anterior serratus and
of the dorsal major muscles11.
Researches speculate that a multi-factorial transmission may apply.
In special way, intrauterine exposure to certain drugs, such as
Misoprostol or Ergotamine between the 6th and 8th week of pregnancy
may lead to the Möbius Syndrome, which, as mentioned, shares
with the PS a common cause: SADS.
As mentioned, PS is a congenital anomaly displaying a wide range
of possible malformations, and, in view of its clinical variability,
it is not easy to classify the various forms and group them together
based on clinical features.
It is however possible to classify the various malformations affecting
the arm, as recently proposed by Al-Qattan12, based on severity.
We are now producing a detailed list of the various clinical manifestations
of SP reported in literature. We remind the reader that a PS diagnosis
requires impairment of the pectoralis major muscle combined with
one or more of the following features:
Absence or hypoplasia of the pectoralis minor muscle.
Hand anomalies. These vary substantially, see table 1. They range
from the absence of anomalies to a slight asymmetry, to micromelia,
brachydactyly, oligodactyly, syndactyly, preaxial oligodactyly
Chest anomalies. These in turn are broken down into:
• Rib depression: aplasia or malformation of 2nd-4th or
3rd-5th costal cartilages;
• Diaphragm anomalies: diaphragmatic hernia, diaphragm agenesis;
• Absence of parts of the serratus muscle or of the external
• Skin or subcutaneous fat hypoplasia;
• Absence of axillary hair;
• Absent or reduced nipple development (atelia) or mammary
• Sternal asymmetry, usually involving a depression and
rotation towards the affected side.
• Arms asymmetry, with malformations and agenesis affecting
homerus, ulna, radius and scapula.
• Vertebral anomalies: hemivertebrae, vertebral fusions
• Visceral anomalies. Literature describes :
• Liver and biliary ducts anomalies;
• Heart in an anomalous position, dextrocardia;
• Colon and small intestine anomalies;
• Renal agenesis, unilateral or bilateral kidney hypoplasia;
• Pelvic and urinary ducts anomalies (bifidity, duplicity,
• Central nervous system anomalies:
• Encephalocele/exencephaly, microcephaly;
• Hypothalamus and hypophysis functional or morphologic
• Blood/oncological anomalies: platelet disorder, leukaemias,
lymphomas, mammary neoplasias
• Klippel-Feil Syndrome: described in 1912, displaying cervical
vertebrae fusion with an impaired cervical motility, low hairline
and short neck13,14. A concealed form of spina bifida may be present.
• Möbius Syndrome: partial or full unilateral or bilateral
paralysis of the VI and VII cranial nerves, with multiple limb
• Adams-Oliver Syndrome: typically asymmetric terminal phalanx
and finger defects, scalp aplasia, mottled skin16.
• Goldenhar Syndrome: eye, ear, vertebral and craniofacial
• Ulrich-Turner Syndrome: frequent chromosome anomaly (1/2500-3000
born alive) 45,X, with hypogonadism, gonadal dysgenesis, low height19.
• Parry-Romberg Syndrome: unilateral atrophy of face subcutaneous
tissue with eye anomalies20,21.
• Sprengel Anomaly: absence of the upper part of the anterior
serratus muscle, with winged and high scapula22.
Diagnosis is usually clinical, since all the possible clinical
varieties of the syndrome can be observed, in special way hypoplasia
of the pectoralis major muscle and homolateral malformations of
Radiological examination is important in order to accurately evaluate
all existing abnormalities. In particular, chest x-rays and abdominal
ultrasound scanning are always to be carried out. Chest computerised
tomography is very useful in order to define the chest deformities
and to evaluate indication for surgery, in which case it is always
A radiological examination of the arm shall always be recommended
whenever an anatomic or functional anomaly is reported for this
Indication for surgery needs to be evaluated on a case-to-case
basis. In the broadest PS case history described in literature24,
including 75 patients, surgery was indicated in less than one
third of cases. Indication for surgery provides for the following:
• Aesthetical problems.
• Structural problems.
• Functional anomalies.
• Paroxysmal movements of the chest wall and progressive
lung herniation owing to the defect.
• Lung functionality deficiency.
• Lack of protection (contact sports).
• Muscular weakness.
During the paediatric age, as far as orthopaedic malformations
are concerned, syndactyly needs to be corrected around the age
of one, whereas the best age for the surgical correction of the
other malformations affecting the hand shall vary, depending on
the type and severity of the anomaly.
As regards the paediatric surgeon, the most frequent indication
is severe chest asymmetry, which may lead to aesthetic or functional
problems affecting the cardiovascular apparatus, and/or the existence
of “exposed” areas, in which the chest viscera are
liable to dangerous traumas and herniations. The existence of
costal aplasia or hypoplasia without clear deformities or viscera
trauma risks does not represent in itself a reason for surgical
As regards the adolescent and adult age, there usually are no
functional impairments involving the need for surgery, which is
why the indication is usually related to cosmetic purposes, depending
on the cases, to correct aesthetic chest deformities and mammary
or nipple hypoplasia or aplasia. If severe, these deformities
may lead to major psychological or behavioural problems, especially
in females. These operations, which fall within the field of competence
of plastic surgeons, are to be conducted upon completion of pubertal
development, as it is necessary to wait for the complete development
of the contralateral breast, in order to carry out a symmetric
mastoplasty in a single session. The surgical reconstruction of
the pectoral muscle is often carried out at the same time, with
a rotation flap of the major dorsal muscle25. In addition to the
risk of secondary flap ischemia, leading to a subsequent partial
atrophy, this method involves an exposure to possible further
weakening of the arm, which is why, even though often indicated
in females, where it plays a major role in supporting the mammary
prosthesis, in males it needs to be evaluate on a case-to-case
As regards the correction of deformities affecting the rib cage,
the earliest description of a corrective operation related to
PS was provided by Ravich in 196626, who resorted to the transposition
of autologous ribs and to a Teflon band to correct the chest deformity.
Different reconstructive techniques were subsequently described,
involving the use of other materials (lyophilised dura mater,
Marlex band, Vicryl net), with or without combined costal transposition.
In our opinion, with SP, it is important to be invasive as little
as possible and in the paediatric age only correct the cases which
really require surgery, owing to psychological or functional reasons,
and correct in special way cases involving clear asymmetries caused
by sternal rotation, protrusion or depression. In our opinion,
autologous costal transposition preserving the costal perichondrium
should only be resorted to in the rare cases involving viscera
trauma risks due to the absence of costal protection, see figure
3 Furthermore, for aesthetic reasons it may be necessary to carry
out resections of protruding ribs, sternal rotations by means
of transversal or wedge osteotomy, insertion of transsternal stabilizers
(metal bars, as much more often accomplished in the case of pectus
excavatum). It may often be sufficient to correct the chest asymmetry
by inserting a band in synthetic material in-between the ribs,
see figure 4. Lastly, we need do point out that, as a rule, physiotherapeutic
exercise and gymnastics are not helpful for the correction of
chest asymmetries, but may in fact even increase the asymmetry
if this is caused by muscle hypoplasia.
CASE HISTORIES FROM GIANNINA GASLINI INSTITUTE
At the Paediatric Surgery Department of Giannina Gaslini Institute,
headed by Prof. Vincenzo Jasonni, we have studied the case of
20 patients affected by PS. The related data is summarised in
The male/female ratio was 3/1.
The number of patients subject to surgery owing to chest deformity
was8. In these cases plastic surgery was carried out on the chest,
including in some cases costal transposition.
AISP, the Italian Association for Poland Syndrome, was founded
in October 2003 in Genoa. The chairwoman of the association, Ms
Eva Pesaro Naticchi, in alliance with Gaslini Hospital and in
special way with Professor Vincenzo Jasonni, former chairman of
the scientific committee, has organised two nationwide scientific
conferences on the syndrome. The second event, taking place in
October last year, dealt with the position of scientific research
and future prospects with regards to Poland Syndrome.
The round-table conference had among its participants specialists
(Prof. Vincenzo Jasonni - Head of the Surgery Hospital Department/Operating
Unit at Giannina Gaslini Institute),
(Prof. Pierluigi Santi - Head of Hospital Department at IST Tumour
Institute of S. Martino Hospital in Genoa ,
Dott. Gianluca Gatti - Medical Manager of the Plastic Surgery
Complex Operating Unit - Pisa),
(Prof. Mario Igor Rossello - Manager of the Operating Unit of
the Hand Surgery Regional Centre in Savona),
(Dott.ssa Margherita Lerone - Molecular Genetics Department of
Giannina Gaslini Institute,
Dott. Sebastiano Bianca - Medical Genetics Surgery of the “Garibaldi”
Hospital Enterprise in Catania),
(Dr.ssa Daniela Zarri - Paediatric Blood-Oncology Operating Unit,
IRCCS G. Gaslini,
Dr.ssa Lucia Spada - CEMP - Marriage and Pre-Marriage Education
Centre in Genoa).
The Association which has an Internet website www.sindromedipoland.org,
organises in conjunction with IGG out-patient stays in hospital
for patients suffering from the syndrome, who are subject to multi-specialist
(surgical, orthopaedic, genetic and psychological) checkups, aiming
at an accurate genetic and clinical organisation of a longitudinal
therapeutic programme and at providing adequate information to