About growth disorders

There are about two hundred different conditions that can cause problems with growth, each having different causes, symptoms and treatments.

For simplicity, these conditions can be grouped into three main types, depending on the overall cause of the condition. These are:

  • Problems with the growth process itself, also known as primary growth disorders.
  • Problems caused by external factors such as malnutrition or long term illness, also known as secondary growth disorders.
  • Unknown causes – when it is not possible to identify the cause of the growth disorder, also known as idiopathic growth disorders.

Remember this website is not intended as a substitute for consultation with your healthcare professional. Please consult your healthcare professional for further information.

Problems with the growth process (primary growth disorders)

These are the most common types of growth disorders.

In the majority of cases, this type of condition exists from birth, although it may not be noticed until later on in life. These types of growth disorders are caused by problems with the genes involved in growth. It is not possible to alter or change the genes, therefore the cause of the condition cannot be treated. 

This type of growth condition can be inherited (meaning it is passed on from parent to child) or can occur for no apparent reason. 

Examples include: Turner's syndrome, Silver-Russell syndrome, Noonan's syndrome and Prader-Willi syndrome.

To find out more about how growth works visit our 'About growth' section.

Growth issues caused by external factors (secondary growth disorders)

Children with this type of condition generally have another issue or condition that is causing a problem with their growth. 

This might be:

  • Illness 
  • Medication
  • Hormonal disorder
  • Poor nutrition
  • Disorder of an organ

In these cases a short height is not the main problem and there may be other symptoms (not related to growth) that are also present. In general, this type of growth condition is treatable. 

Examples of secondary growth disorders include: growth hormone deficiency, thyroid disease, coeliac and Crohn’s disease. 

In these types of condition, treating the cause will often resolve any growth issues. 

Unknown cause (idiopathic)

Sometimes the cause of the growth disorder can’t be found. In these children there does not seem to be a genetic, nor even an external reason why they are not growing as expected. The child may have been born with a normal birth height and may eat healthily, but for some reason isn’t growing as well as they should. In such cases the doctor may diagnose the child with what is known as 'idiopathic short stature'. This simply means a growth condition with no known cause. 

Consequences of growth disorders

Although a short height is one of the most noticeable symptoms of a growth condition, there are also a number of other symptoms and issues that may affect the child:

  • Physical symptoms - since there are many different types of growth disorders, the types of symptoms vary considerably, but in general consist of pain or tiredness. Some children may have to deal with joint or weight problems too.
  • Physical development – in some conditions growth disturbances can lead to issues with development of other tissues and organs, such as the lungs. 
  • Practical problems – there may be difficulties in finding clothes or shoes to fit. Carrying out everyday tasks such as sitting at a school desk or going to the toilet can be difficult for some children. 
  • Emotional issues – such as bullying at school or even hurtful comments made by strangers can be very upsetting. Your child may also suffer from confidence issues as well as feelings of anger and frustration. 

Every child will have different challenges depending on their condition. To understand how to better support your child, and for practical advice for everyday activities, visit our 'Supporting your child' section.

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