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Growth Hormone Deficiency

What is growth hormone deficiency?

Growth hormone deficiency, as the name implies, is the absence or deficiency of growth hormone produced by the pituitary gland to stimulate the body to grow. Growth hormone deficiency may occur during infancy or later in childhood. Without treatment, most children with growth hormone deficiency will not reach a height of 5 feet.

What causes growth hormone deficiency?

Growth hormones are produced by the pituitary gland, which is attached to the hypothalamus (a part of the brain that affects the pituitary gland) located at the base of the brain. Sometimes referred to as the master gland of the endocrine system, the pituitary gland controls the functions of the other endocrine glands through the secretion of certain hormones and also produces human growth hormone. When the pituitary gland or the hypothalamus are malformed or damaged, growth hormone deficiency may result. Damage to the pituitary gland or hypothalamus may occur as a result of abnormal formation of these organs before a child is born (congenital, or present at birth), or as a result of damage that occurred during or after birth (acquired).

Researchers have found that growth hormone deficiency may also be part of a genetic syndrome. However, in some cases, the cause of growth hormone deficiency is unknown (idiopathic).

What are the symptoms of growth hormone deficiency?

The primary symptom of growth hormone deficiency is a noticeable slow growth (less than two inches per year), although the body has normal proportions. The child with growth hormone deficiency may also have:

  • an immature face, meaning he/she looks much younger than his/her peers
  • a chubby body build

It is important to note that growth hormone deficiency does not affect the child's intelligence, and each child experiences symptoms differently. The symptoms of growth hormone deficiency may resemble other problems or medical conditions. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

How is growth hormone deficiency diagnosed?

Before a growth hormone deficiency diagnosis can be made, your child's physician may have to rule out other disorders first, including short stature (inherited family shortness) and thyroid hormone deficiency. In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for growth hormone deficiency may include the following:

  • monitoring the child's growth over a period of time
  • a review of the mother's pregnancy, labor, and delivery
  • bone (hand and wrist) x-rays - electromagnetic energy used to produce images of bones and internal organs onto film (to determine bone maturity and growth potential).
  • IGF-1 (or somatomedin) test - produced when the liver and other tissues are stimulated by growth hormone
  • scan of the pituitary gland (to detect abnormalities)
  • artificial stimulation of growth hormone secretion followed by measurement of growth hormone release over a period of time
  • measurement of growth hormone in the blood during an overnight stay in the hospital (two-thirds of the production of growth hormone occurs during deep sleep)

Treatment of growth hormone deficiency:

Specific treatment for growth hormone deficiency will be determined by your child's physician based on:

  • your child's age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the condition
  • your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the condition
  • your opinion or preference

Once growth hormone deficiency has been diagnosed, treatment for the disorder involves regular injections of human growth hormone (some children receive daily injections, while others receive injections several times a week). 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 normal or near-normal adult height. However, not all children respond well to growth hormone treatment.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that therapy with growth hormone is medically and ethically acceptable for children:

  • with classic growth hormone deficiency.
  • awaiting kidney transplantation who have chronic renal insufficiency.
  • with Turner syndrome (females).
  • whose extreme short stature prohibits their participation in everyday activities, and who have a condition for which the efficacy of growth hormone therapy has been demonstrated.

How safe is growth hormone treatment?

While there are many potential side effects, researchers generally agree that treatment with human growth hormone is safe and effective. Until the 1980s, the only source of human growth hormone was from the pituitary glands of deceased people, where an increased chance of transmission of human diseases from human growth hormone existed. In 1985, a biosynthetic growth hormone was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) eliminating the risk of disease transmission and creating an unlimited supply of growth hormone. Consult your child's physician for more information.

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