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What to Know About Growth Hormone Deficiency

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on April 27, 2022

Your brain contains a tiny pituitary gland, which produces vital hormones for your body. Growth hormone (GH) is one of them, and it promotes bone and tissue growth in children. 

Adults need growth hormone, too, though. It plays a variety of roles, from promoting healthy muscles to brain function. When your pituitary gland doesn't make enough growth hormone, you have a growth hormone deficiency that may affect you in negative ways.

Growth Hormone Deficiency Causes

The cause of growth hormone deficiency isn't known in many cases. Damage to the pituitary gland or hypothalamus is most often the cause. It may also appear due to genetic factors in rare cases.

Growth hormone deficiency can manifest at any age. The pituitary gland can be damaged before birth or at a young age, causing a child to develop a deficiency. 

For adults, a tumor on the pituitary gland can cause growth hormone deficiency. Tumors, the surgery and radiation used to treat them, and blood flow problems can all cause damage to the pituitary gland. 

Growth Hormone Deficiency Symptoms

Growth hormone deficiency is more noticeable in children because of the quick rate at which they normally grow. Children grow 2.5 inches each year on average.

Children with growth hormone deficiency grow more slowly. They usually grow less than 1.4 inches each year once they're over three years old. 

They also tend to look like children longer. They retain traits like a "baby face" and chubby build for much longer than their friends. Their hair also grows slower, and their puberty can be delayed

A child living with growth hormone deficiency may have problems affecting their self-esteem and mental health. If left untreated, growth hormone deficiency can prevent your child from reaching their adult height, and they may develop even worse symptoms as an adult. 

Adults with growth hormone deficiency have a wide range of symptoms, including: 

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Low sex drive
  • Temperature sensitivity
  • Less muscle and strength
  • Decreased stamina
  • Lower bone density

Typically, symptoms of growth hormone deficiency mimic other conditions, especially in adulthood. You will need a thorough examination by your doctor to properly diagnose growth hormone deficiency. 

Growth Hormone Deficiency Diagnosis

There are several steps involved in diagnosing growth hormone deficiency, and several other factors to consider.

Family traits. If your child isn't growing as much each year, it might be because your whole family is shorter than average. Your child may also retain more of their "baby fat" simply because your family carries more weight naturally. 

Other health conditions. Other health conditions mimic the low production of growth hormones. Thyroid hormone deficiencies and kidney disease may be the cause of your symptoms. Exploring the possibility of these other conditions may help your doctor make a proper diagnosis.

Health history. Looking at your symptoms, health history, and family health history will paint a more detailed picture. If certain conditions or traits run in your family, it can guide your doctor toward a diagnosis.

Prior surgeries, injuries, or a history of pituitary conditions can prompt your doctor to check your pituitary gland as the source of a deficiency.

Blood tests. A blood test can check your hormone levels, including your growth hormones. Blood tests are usually repeated to monitor hormone levels throughout the course of treatment.

Blood tests for adults are less accurate because your body absorbs growth hormone quickly as it circulates in the blood. A healthy person may show low growth hormone because of this.

An endocrinologist — a hormone specialist — may test the pituitary gland directly instead of performing a typical blood test. They'll stimulate the pituitary gland so that it makes growth hormone. They can make a diagnosis by checking the gland's response to this stimulation.

X-rays. An X-ray will check your bone age using a small amount of radiation on a small part of your body. Growth hormone deficiency will cause your bones to register as being younger than your actual age. A computerized tomography (CT) scan can also be used to create a more detailed image. 

MRI. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) creates images of tissues and organs. An MRI allows you and your doctor to look at your pituitary gland and determine if it's damaged or malformed.

Growth Hormone Deficiency Treatment

The exact treatment will vary depending on your age, health, and other factors found during the preliminary exams. Your doctor may refer you to an endocrinologist

The primary treatment for growth hormone deficiency is hormone injections. You'll get injections of a synthetic human growth hormone regularly.

The synthetic growth hormone is identical to the hormone produced by your pituitary gland. It's a safe and effective treatment for growth hormone deficiency.

Early treatment is essential for treating children with growth hormone deficiency. Starting treatment as soon as possible will help them reach an appropriate height and avoid lifelong complications.

Some people may need daily injections, while others only need a few each week. Your doctor will tailor your treatment plan to your needs.

The growth hormone injections are easy to perform on yourself or administer for someone else. They're nearly painless, quick to use, and easy to incorporate into your daily routines.

Since your pituitary gland affects your muscles, body fat, cholesterol, and bone density as an adult, monitoring these factors is also part of the treatment process. 

Results. You can typically see results after 3 months of treatment. You'll likely have to monitor any development to gauge your progress. Treatment can last several years. 

For children, you may notice that their feet may get bigger, they may eat more, and they may look skinny since they're getting taller but not gaining weight. 

Children get growth hormone treatment until they reach their adult height, their bones reach full maturity, or their growth slows down to around 0.5 inches per year.

Side effects. Growth hormone treatment doesn't work for all people. They may experience allergic reactions, joint pain and swelling, headaches, and increased blood sugar. Be sure to report any adverse effects to your doctor.

Show Sources

SOURCES

Cedars-Sinai: "Adult Growth Hormone Deficiency," "Growth Hormone Deficiency in Children."

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia: "Growth Hormone Deficiency."

Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh: "Growth Hormone Treatment."

Nemours KidsHealth: "Growth and Your 6- to 12-Yeard-Old."

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