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Should Short Boys Take Growth Hormone?

If they're healthy, probably not, experts say

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Amy Norton

HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, March 27 (HealthDay News) -- Parents often worry when their child, especially a son, is much shorter than average. But as long as there is no medical cause, parents can rest easy, experts say.

Writing in the March 28 New England Journal of Medicine, two pediatric endocrinologists describe a scenario pediatricians see all the time: Parents bring in their 11-year-old son because he's substantially shorter than his classmates, and his growth seems to have slowed in recent years.

Their concern is reasonable, said Dr. David Allen, co-author of the article and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.

In the vignette, Allen and Dr. Leona Cuttler describe a boy whose height was in the third percentile at age 9 years. (That means he was shorter than 97 percent of boys his age.) But his growth rate slowed further, so that he is now in the first percentile for height.

"When a child falls off the growth curve like that, it's appropriate for parents to be concerned and have him evaluated," Allen said.

The potential medical causes include growth hormone deficiency, certain genetic disorders or an underactive thyroid gland. Fortunately, though, most short kids are healthy.

The "conundrum," Allen said, is that parents are often still worried, especially when that child is a boy. And, in the United States, human growth hormone is approved to treat so-called idiopathic short stature -- that is, short stature with no known medical cause -- when a child is below the first percentile for height.

So parents may want costly treatment even if their child has a clean bill of health.

Dr. Patricia Vuguin, a pediatric endocrinologist at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y., said some doctors will recommend doing nothing. And, "some will say, let's try growth hormone," she said.

But both Vuguin and Allen said it's important for parents to have realistic expectations of growth hormone. For short, healthy children, studies predict that growth hormone will deliver an extra 1 to 3 inches as an adult. And that's the average; other factors come into play.

If both parents are short, that limits what growth hormone therapy can do. "We can't modify your genetic potential," Vuguin said.

The fictional family in Allen's report fit that scenario. The mother was 5 feet tall, while the dad stood at 5 feet 6 inches. Their son's predicted height, with no intervention, was 5 feet 5 inches -- the lower end of "normal."

"You have to think, how important is an inch or two of extra height in the big picture?" Vuguin said. "Is the difference between 5 feet 5 inches and 5 feet 6 inches that important?"

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