Growth Hormone Deficiency Symptoms & Causes

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We understand that you may have a lot of questions when your child is diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency. Is it dangerous? Will it affect my child long term? What do we do next? We’ve tried to provide some answers to those questions here, and our experts can explain your child’s condition fully.

What is growth hormone deficiency?

Growth hormone deficiency is a complex problem that can take different forms from patient to patient.

Growth hormone is a protein produced by the pituitary gland, which is located near the base of the brain and attached to the hypothalamus (a part of the brain that helps to regulate the pituitary gland). If the pituitary gland or the hypothalamus is malformed or damaged, it may mean that the pituitary gland can’t produce growth hormone.

If the pituitary gland is lacking in multiple pituitary hormones, the condition is called hypopituitarism.

How do you define "normal" growth?

Growth rates vary considerably from child to child. But measured in height, average "normal" growth is often described as:

  • 0-12 months: about 10 inches a year
  • 1-2 years: about 5 inches a year
  • 2-3 years: about 3 ½ inches a year
  • 3 years to puberty: about 2 to 2 ½ inches a year

If your child is less than the 3rd percentile in height for a child of his age, that can be a red flag for growth hormone deficiency.

Complications

Some research suggests that there are additional complications from growth hormone deficiency, including:

  • decreased bone mineral density
  • increased cardiovascular risk factors
  • decreased energy level

Causes

Damage to the pituitary gland or hypothalamus may be the result of an abnormal formation that occurred before your child was born (congenital) or something that occurred during or after birth (acquired).

Congenital growth hormone deficiency can occur if there are mutations in genes for factors that are important in pituitary gland development, or in receptors and factors (including growth hormone) along the growth hormone pathway; to date, however, the cause of most of these cases is unknown.

Acquired causes of growth hormone deficiency include:

  • a brain tumor in the hypothalamus or pituitary
     
  • head trauma
     
  • radiation therapy for cancers, if the treatment field includes the hypothalamus and pituitary
     
  • diseases that infiltrate the hypothalamus or its connection to the pituitary gland, such as histiocytosis
     
  • an autoimmune condition (lymphocytic hypophysitis)

It's also important to remember that growth hormone deficiency is only one of many conditions that may affect your child’s growth. Your child’s short stature may be caused by other syndromes, and growth failure may be due to decreased nutritional intake, gastrointestinal disorders, diseases that have increased metabolic demand or hypothyroidism.

Symptoms

Since growth takes place over many years, and since children grow at different rates, symptoms of growth hormone deficiency may be hard to identify. In addition to noticeably slow growth with normal body proportions, signs may include:

  • immature appearance, compared to peers
  • a chubby body build
  • a prominent forehead
  • an underdeveloped bridge of the nose

Growth hormone deficiency has no affect on a child’s intelligence.

These symptoms may resemble other conditions, so be sure to always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

FAQ

Q: What is growth hormone deficiency?

A: Growth hormone is a protein produced by the pituitary gland, which is located near the base of the brain and attached to the hypothalamus (a part of the brain that helps to regulate the pituitary gland). If the pituitary gland or the hypothalamus is malformed or damaged, it may mean that the pituitary gland can’t produce growth hormone.

If the pituitary gland is lacking in multiple pituitary hormones, the condition is called hypopituitarism.

Q: What causes growth hormone deficiency?

A: Damage to the pituitary gland or hypothalamus may be the result of an abnormal formation that occurred before your child was born (congenital) or something that occurred during or after birth (acquired).

Your child’s short stature may also be caused by other syndromes, and growth failure may be due to decreased nutritional intake, medications, gastrointestinal disorders, diseases that have increased metabolic demand or hypothyroidism.

Q: Is growth hormone deficiency treatable?

A: Treatment of growth hormone deficiency involves regular injections of synthetic human growth hormone. Children receive daily injections. Treatment usually lasts several years, although results are often seen as soon as three to four months after the injections are started.

The earlier the treatment for growth hormone deficiency is started, the better chance the child will have of attaining her normal or near-normal adult height. However, not all children respond well to growth hormone treatment.

Q: How safe is treatment for growth hormone deficiency?

A: While there are many potential side effects, particularly if growth hormone is used to treat children who don't have a true hormone deficiency, researchers generally agree that treatment with human growth hormone is safe and effective.

Q: Will growth hormone deficiency affect my child’s intelligence?

A: Growth hormone deficiency has no effect on a child’s intelligence.

Questions to ask your doctor

You and your family are key players in your child’s medical care. It’s important that you share your observations and ideas with your child’s health care provider and that you understand your provider’s recommendations.

If your child is experiencing symptoms of growth hormone deficiency and you’ve set up an appointment, you probably already have some ideas and questions on your mind. But at the appointment, it can be easy to forget the questions you wanted to ask. It’s often helpful to jot them down ahead of time so that you can leave the appointment feeling like you have the information you need.

If your child is old enough, you may want to suggest that she write down what she wants to ask her health care provider, too.

Some of the questions you may want to ask include:

  • What’s causing my child’s growth hormone deficiency?
  • Will you be prescribing growth hormone replacement therapy?
  • Are there any side effects or potentially dangerous risks to treatment?
  • How long will my child have to remain on medication?
  • How much can I expect my child to grow?
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