PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.
Short stature is defined as height that is two standard deviations below the mean height for age and sex (less than the third percentile) or more than two standard deviations below the mid-parental height. A child's rate of growth is important. A downward growth trend suggests a slowdown in growth and possibly a growth problem. A growth velocity disorder is defined as an abnormally slow growth rate, which may manifest as height deceleration across two major percentile lines on the growth chart.
There are many potential causes. In some cases, short stature or slow growth is the initial sign of a serious underlying disease in an otherwise healthy child.
The European Society for Paediatric Endocrinology (ESPE) classifies the main causes of
short stature into three groups:
- Primary growth disorders, where the condition is intrinsic to the growth plate.
- Secondary growth disorders, where the growth plates change as a consequence of the condition.
- Idiopathic, where there is no identifiable cause of short stature.
Most children with short stature will have constitutional delay of growth and puberty (CDGP) or familial short stature, or there will be no identifiable cause.
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Primary growth disorders
- Clinically defined genetic syndromes, such as:
- Intrauterine growth restriction with failure to catch up:
- Fetomaternal factors
- Placental dysfunction
- Congenital bone disorders such as:
Secondary growth disorders
- Hypothalamic or pituitary lesions (eg, trauma or tumour).
- Laron's syndrome (growth hormone insensitivity).
- Cushing's syndrome.
- Growth hormone deficiency or insufficiency.
- Precocious puberty.
- Disorders of the growth hormone insulin-like growth factor I axis.
- Glycogen storage diseases.
- Diabetes mellitus (poor control).
- Chronic disease:
- Cardiovascular disease.
- Respiratory disease (eg, cystic fibrosis).
- Renal disorders disease.
- Neurological (eg, hydrocephalus).
- Juvenile arthritis.
- Poverty or neglect.
- Inflammatory bowel disease.
- Coeliac disease.
- Bowel obstruction.
- Enzyme deficiencies.
- Chronic bowel infection.
- Short bowel syndrome.
- Anorexia nervosa.
- Psychosocial deprivation, including hyperphagic short stature syndrome.
- Medication: steroid therapy.
- A comprehensive history starting in the prenatal and perinatal periods should be obtained. Emphases of the history include maternal health and habits during pregnancy, the duration of gestation, birth weight and length and growth pattern (centile charts if available).
- Obtaining the family history of growth patterns and direct measurement of the parents is crucial to determine the genetic potential for growth in the child. Ascertain timing of puberty in the parents.
- Ask about nutrition, including problems with feeding, appetite, food science, special diets or any other indication of inadequate nutrition.
- Consider any chronic disease and medication. Careful review of physical symptoms suggesting underlying chronic disease, such as breathlessness, diarrhoea. Ask about systemic symptoms, particularly of gastroenterological or neurological origin.
- Consider any signs of developmental delay. Ask about achievement of developmental milestones and any learning difficulty.
- Any indication of possible child abuse, including interaction of the child with the parent.
A thorough examination is essential to establish accurate height and weight and any indication of a possible underlying cause for short stature.
- Accurate measurement of height (using a calibrated stadiometer) and weight. Sitting as well as standing height are important in order to consider asymmetry and skeletal disproportion - eg, achondroplasia.
- A thorough physical examination helps differentiate abnormal growth patterns from normal variants and identifies specific dysmorphic features of genetic syndromes.
- Consider growth hormone deficiency from hypopituitarism - look for other features of pituitary hormone deficiency (eg, hypogonadism) and possible features of a pituitary tumour (eg, papilloedema and visual field defects).
- Consider any indications of other possible underlying causes - eg, Cushing's syndrome, chronic kidney disease, hypothyroidism or fetal alcohol syndrome.
- Look for features of Turner syndrome in girls.
- Look for features of skeletal causes, -eg, rickets (craniotabes, bulbous wrists and bowing of the extremities), achondroplasia.
- Look for skin lesions such as café-au-lait spots or large haemangiomas.
Calculate expected final height
- The mid-parental height provides an estimation of the expected final height. If a child's height lies within the target centile range then their height is normal with regard to their genetic potential.
- A calibrated stadiometer should be used for measuring standing height and the heights of the parents should be accurately measured rather than rely on reported heights. The mid-parental height is unreliable if the parents' heights are very different.
- In a boy: Mid-parental height (cm) = (Father's height + (Mother's height + 13)) divided by 2.
- In a girl: Mid-parental height (cm) = ((Father's height - 13) + Mother's height) divided by 2.
Investigations indicated to confirm or exclude possible underlying causes are based on the clinical assessment. They may include:
- Blood tests:
- FBC: anaemia blood dyscrasia and infections.
- Renal function tests and electrolytes: renal disease and electrolyte abnormalities - eg, Bartter's syndrome, diabetes insipidus and other renal and metabolic disorders.
- ESR and CRP: chronic inflammatory conditions.
- Urinalysis and urine pH level: renal tubular acidosis.
- Karyotyping may be helpful where examination suggests features of genetic syndromes. It should be performed in all girls with short stature as this may be the only feature of Turner syndrome.
- Specific tests for suspected underlying or associated diseases - eg, coeliac disease, Cushing's disease, cystic fibrosis, growth hormone deficiency, vitamin D deficiency.
- Bone age:
- Bone age can help to predict the final adult height by estimating skeletal maturation from an assessment of the ossification of the epiphyseal centres.
- The most widely used method is based on comparing a frontal radiograph of the left hand and wrist with standards from the Greulich-Pyle atlas.
- Bone age is considered delayed if it is two standard deviations below the chronological age.
- Bone age is usually normal for age in children with familial short stature. In children with CDGP the bone age corresponds with height age and is delayed (up to two standard deviations). In children with pathological short stature, the bone age is severely delayed (more than two standard deviations
- Over-emphasis of bone age evaluation can be misleading if not used in the proper settings. The predictions do not apply to children with endocrine or bone pathologies affecting growth.
- Dental age: can provide an indirect assessment of skeletal age. The eruption of primary and secondary teeth may be delayed for up to 1.3 years in children with growth hormone deficiency, up to 1.5 years in children with CDGP and more than two years in children with severe hypothyroidism.
Indications for referral include:
- Height: height fails to progress along the appropriate centile curve.
- Growth velocity: decreased growth velocity for age.
- Genetic potential: projected height varies from mid-parental height by more than 5 cm (2 in).
- Multiple syndromic or dysmorphic features: abnormal facies, midline defects, body disproportions.
- Bone age: delayed by more than two standard deviations.
Management of any identified underlying cause is clearly important.
- Growth hormone of human origin (somatotrophin) has been replaced by a growth hormone of human sequence (somatropin) which is produced using recombinant DNA technology.
- The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that somatropin be used for the treatment of growth failure for children with growth failure who:
- Have growth hormone deficiency.
- Have Turner syndrome.
- Have Prader-Willi syndrome.
- Have chronic kidney disease.
- Are born small for gestational age with subsequent growth failure at 4 years of age or later.
- Have short stature homeobox-containing gene (SHOX) deficiency.
- Treatment should be discontinued if:
- Growth velocity increases by less than 50% from baseline in the first year of treatment.
- Final height is approached and growth velocity is less than 2 cm total growth in one year.
- Adherence is poor and cannot be improved.
- Final height is attained.
Growth hormone therapy in children with idiopathic short stature seems to be effective in partially reducing the deficit in height as adults, although the magnitude of effectiveness is on average less than that achieved in other conditions for which growth hormone is licensed. Treated individuals remain relatively short when compared with peers of normal stature. Mecasermin, a recombinant human insulin-like growth factor-I (rhIGF-I), is licensed to treat growth failure in children and adolescents with severe primary insulin-like growth factor I deficiency.
Children with short stature may be teased or bullied, with potential emotional and psychological consequences. This is a source of parental anxiety although, in general, studies are reassuring and suggest long-term complications are infrequent. Because short stature causes anxiety and may prompt consultation it may draw attention to underlying conditions which will then get treated, with consequent improvement in general health.
Further reading & references
- Information for health professionals; Child Growth Foundation
- Haymond M, Kappelgaard AM, Czernichow P, et al; Early recognition of growth abnormalities permitting early intervention. Acta Paediatr. 2013 Aug;102(8):787-96. doi: 10.1111/apa.12266. Epub 2013 May 13.
- ESPE Classification of Paediatric Endocrine Diagnoses; European Society for Paediatric Endocrinology, 2007
- Garganta MD, Bremer AA; Clinical dilemmas in evaluating the short child. Pediatr Ann. 2014 Aug;43(8):321-7. doi: 10.3928/00904481-20140723-11.
- Nwosu BU, Lee MM; Evaluation of short and tall stature in children. Am Fam Physician. 2008 Sep 1;78(5):597-604.
- Spadoni GL, Cianfarani S; Bone age assessment in the workup of children with endocrine disorders. Horm Res Paediatr. 2010;73(1):2-5. Epub 2010 Jan 15.
- Human growth hormone (somatropin) for the treatment of growth failure in children; NICE Technology Appraisal Guidance, May 2010
- Deodati A, Cianfarani S; Impact of growth hormone therapy on adult height of children with idiopathic short stature: systematic review. BMJ. 2011 Mar 11;342:c7157. doi: 10.1136/bmj.c7157.
- Bryant J, Baxter L, Cave CB, et al; Recombinant growth hormone for idiopathic short stature in children and adolescents. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Jul 18;(3):CD004440.
- Rosenbloom AL; Mecasermin (recombinant human insulin-like growth factor I). Adv Ther. 2009 Jan;26(1):40-54. doi: 10.1007/s12325-008-0136-5. Epub 2009 Jan 28.
- British National Formulary; NICE Evidence Services (UK access only)
- Lee JM, Appugliese D, Coleman SM, et al; Short stature in a population-based cohort: social, emotional, and behavioral functioning. Pediatrics. 2009 Sep;124(3):903-10. doi: 10.1542/peds.2008-0085. Epub 2009 Aug 17.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
Dr Colin Tidy
Dr Mary Harding
Dr Adrian Bonsall