Growth Hormone Deficiency

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is growth hormone deficiency?

Growth hormone deficiency (GHD) is a rare disorder of the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is a small gland that sits at the base of the brain. It makes and regulates a variety of hormones, including growth hormone. In growth hormone deficiency, the pituitary doesn’t make enough growth hormone (human growth hormone, or HGH). This can range in severity from a complete absence of growth hormone to levels that are just low enough to be ineffective.

Human growth hormone is responsible for bone and muscle development in children. It also plays a role in body fat distribution and blood levels of fats and sugars. Growth hormone deficiency in children results in slowed growth. Affected children tend to be shorter than their peers. They can have a persistence of “baby fat.” This makes their face and body chubbier, giving them a younger appearance. Other growth hormone deficiency symptoms can occur depending on whether or not other pituitary hormones are normal or not.

Adults also depend on growth hormone. It influences body composition, physical stamina, and mental well-being. Growth hormone deficiency in adults can lead to fatigue, lack of energy, and difficulty with weight control. Weight gain tends to affect fat accumulation around the middle.

There are two main types of GHD—congenital and acquired. The congenital form is present at birth. Babies with this genetic disorder may be smaller at birth or it may not be apparent until later in infancy or childhood. The acquired form occurs after something happens to the pituitary gland, such as a tumor, radiation therapy, or brain injury. Sometimes, doctors can’t find an underlying cause.

Growth hormone deficiency treatment is fairly straightforward. It involves giving a synthetic version of HGH. This consists of a daily injection under the skin that you can do at home. It’s important to see your doctor every few months to monitor growth and other symptoms.

Pediatricians routinely monitor growth and development to identify potential problems. If you are concerned about your child’s growth, contact your pediatrician for an appointment.

What are the symptoms of growth hormone deficiency?

Slowed growth is the main symptom of growth hormone deficiency (GHD). Depending on the cause of the deficiency, the problem may be apparent at birth or not until later in infancy or childhood. Typically, children with GHD grow less than 2 inches in a year. A normal growth rate is fairly quick during the first year and slows to about 2.5 inches per year after age 2 years until puberty.

Despite the slowed growth, children with GHD have normal body proportions. This is an important difference between GHD and the most common cause of short stature, achondroplasia.

Common growth hormone deficiency symptoms

Other common growth hormone deficiency symptoms include:

  • Delayed puberty
  • Headaches
  • Low blood glucose levels
  • Younger appearance compared to peers

Children may have other symptoms if there are problems with other pituitary hormones. This includes hormones that control sex hormone, thyroid hormone, and adrenal hormone production.

For children, pediatricians regularly monitor growth through height and weight checks. Charting growth over time can help identify potential problems as they develop. If you have concerns about your child’s growth and development between checks, talk with your child’s doctor or make an appointment.

When adults have GHD, it can affect body composition, physical fitness, and psychological well-being. Adults may see an increase in body fat, especially in the trunk, and a decrease in muscle mass. They often experience muscle weakness and decreased endurance for physical tasks. Adults with GHD often have mood disturbances, such as depression and anxiety. If you are an adult and have been diagnosed with a pituitary disorder, see your doctor if you have concerns about new symptoms.

What causes growth hormone deficiency?

Growth hormone deficiency (GHD) can be either congenital or acquired. Congenital GHD is present at birth due to a genetic mutation or structural defect in the pituitary gland. Some babies are very small at birth, making the condition noticeable. For others, the problem doesn’t become apparent until age 6 to 12 months or even later in childhood.

The acquired form happens when a medical condition causes the pituitary to stop making growth hormone. Possible causes include brain injury, pituitary tumors, and radiation therapy to the area. Often, doctors can’t find an underlying cause for GHD.

What are the risk factors for growth hormone deficiency?

In most people with GHD, no known risk factors can be identified. In cases where it is genetic, parents may or may not show symptoms of the disorder themselves.

Reducing your risk of growth hormone deficiency

Currently, there is no known way to reduce the risk of growth hormone deficiency. Regular pediatric medical care can help find the problem early, when treatment offers the most beneficial results.

How is growth hormone deficiency treated?

The treatment for growth hormone deficiency (GHD) is replacement of growth hormone. It involves injecting a synthetic version of human growth hormone (HGH) under the skin each day. Parents can do this at home and older children can learn to self-administer their shots.

A pediatric endocrinologist will prescribe and monitor growth hormone treatment. Regular visits every 3 to 6 months will allow the doctor to adjust the dose. The goal is to get maximum effectiveness with the least amount of side effects.

Treatment is most effective when it starts early. Some children can regain up to 4 inches of growth in the first year of treatment. For others, the pace will be slower but still better than no treatment. With the right dose of HGH, side effects should be rare.

Possible side effects include:

  • Breast tissue development in boys
  • Headaches
  • Hip and spine problems

Let your child’s doctor know if any of these occur. To avoid scarring and injection site problems, rotate the site of injection each day.

Treatment is usually long-term. Some children may be able to stop treatment after puberty. This is because adult bodies need lower amounts of growth hormone to function normally. However, some children will continue to need it into adulthood.

What are the potential complications of growth hormone deficiency?

Left untreated, growth hormone deficiency will cause short stature and possibly delayed puberty. This can negatively affect a child’s psychological health and social interactions.

When children start treatment before their growth plates have closed, most will respond and their growth rate will increase. The earlier treatment starts, the better the chances of achieving a normal or near-normal adult height.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jul 14
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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