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Growth Hormone Deficiency in Children

What is growth hormone deficiency?

Growth hormone (GH) deficiency is when the pituitary gland doesn't make enough growth hormone. GH is needed to stimulate growth of bone and other tissues. This condition can occur at any age. GH deficiency does not affect a child's intelligence.

What causes GH deficiency?

GH deficiency can be caused by damage to the pituitary gland or another gland called the hypothalamus. The injury can occur before birth (congenital), or during or after birth (acquired). 

The pituitary gland is a pea-sized gland located at the base of the brain. It’s the master endocrine gland in the body. The pituitary gland normally releases as many as 8 different hormones. These hormones control growth, metabolism, blood pressure, and other body processes.

In rare cases, GH deficiency can be part of a genetic syndrome. In many cases, the cause of GH deficiency is not known (idiopathic).

Who is at risk for GH deficiency?

A child is more at risk for GH deficiency if he or she has any of these:

  • Brain injury
  • Brain tumor
  • Radiation treatment to the head

Some children with the problem have none of the risk factors.

What are the symptoms of GH deficiency?

The main sign of GH deficiency is slow height growth each year after a child's 3rd birthday. This means grow in height of less than 3.5 cm (about 1.4 inches) a year. A child with GH deficiency may also have:

  • A younger-looking face
  • A chubby body build
  • Impaired hair growth
  • Delayed puberty

It is important to note that GH deficiency does not affect the child's intelligence.

The symptoms of GH deficiency can be like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is GH deficiency diagnosed?

To diagnose GH deficiency, your child’s healthcare provider needs check for other conditions such as:

  • Normal variations of growth, such as familial short stature
  • Other disorders, such as thyroid hormone deficiency or kidney disease
  • Genetic conditions

The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. He or she may also ask about your family’s health history. He or she will give your child a physical exam. Your child's health and growth may be checked over several months.

Your child may also have tests, such as:

  • Blood tests. These are done to check growth hormone levels.
  • X-ray. This test uses a small amount of radiation to make images of tissues inside the body. An X-ray may be done of the left hand and wrist. This can estimate your child's bone age. With delayed puberty or hormone problems, bone age is often less than calendar age. 
  • CT scan. This test uses a series of X-rays and a computer to make detailed images of the body. A CT scan can show bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than regular X-rays.
  • MRI. This test uses a large magnets and a computer to make detailed images of tissues in the body.

How is GH deficiency treated?

Your child's healthcare provider will consider his or her age, overall health, and other factors when advising treatment. Your child may need to see a pediatric endocrinologist. This is a doctor with extra training in treating children with hormone problems.

Treatment is done with daily injections of synthetic growth hormone. Results are often seen as soon as 3 to 4 months after treatment starts. The treatment lasts several years, usually until late puberty when growing is finished. The earlier the treatment is started, the better the chances that a child will have a normal or near-normal adult height that matches his or her family pattern.

Not all children respond well to growth hormone treatment. GH therapy does not make a person taller than his or her parents.

What are possible complications of GH deficiency?

If untreated, GH deficiency can cause a child to not reach his or her normal adult height.

Living with GH deficiency

Children who are shorter than their peers may have poor self-esteem or depression. It’s important to talk about these problems with your child's healthcare provider. He or she can recommend counseling or support groups for you and your child.

Talk with your child's healthcare provider about your child's potential adult height. Work with your child's healthcare providers to create an ongoing plan to manage your child’s condition.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

Talk with your child’s healthcare provider if you are concerned about your child's growth.

Key points about GH deficiency

  • Growth hormone (GH) deficiency is when the pituitary gland doesn't make enough growth hormone. GH is needed to stimulate growth of bone and other tissues.
  • GH deficiency does not affect a child's intelligence.
  • The main sign of GH deficiency is slow height growth each year after a child's 3rd birthday. A child with GH deficiency may also have a younger-looking face and a chubby body build.
  • Treatment is done with daily injections of synthetic growth hormone. Results are often seen as soon as 3 to 4 months after treatment starts. The treatment lasts several years, usually until late puberty when growing is finished.
  • The earlier the treatment is started, the better the chances that a child will have a normal or near-normal adult height that matches his or her family pattern.
  • If untreated, GH deficiency can cause a child to not reach his or her normal adult height.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s health care provider:
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Online Medical Reviewer: Turley, Ray, BSN, MSN
Date Last Reviewed: 9/10/2015
© 2000-2015 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.