Dwarfism, also known as short stature, occurs when an organism is extremely small. In humans, it is sometimes defined as an adult height of less than 147 centimetres (4 ft 10 in), regardless of sex, although some individuals with dwarfism are slightly taller. Disproportionate dwarfism is characterized by either short limbs or a short torso. In cases of proportionate dwarfism, both the limbs and torso are unusually small. Normal intelligence and lifespan are usual.
Treatment depends on the underlying cause. Those with bone growth disorders can sometimes be treated with surgery, or physical therapy. Hormone disorders can also be treated with hormone replacement therapy before the child’s growth plates fuse. Individual accommodations, such as specialized furniture, are often used by people with dwarfism. Many support groups provide services to aid individuals and the discrimination they may face.
In addition to the medical aspect of the condition, there are also social aspects. For a person with dwarfism, height discrimination can lead to ridicule in childhood and discrimination in adulthood. In the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia, and other English-speaking countries, some people with dwarfism prefer to be called dwarfs, little people, or persons of short stature. Historically, the term “midget” was used to describe proportionate dwarfs; however, this term is now regarded as offensive by some.
Signs and Symptoms
A defining characteristic of dwarfism is an adult height less than the 2.3rd percentile of the CDC standard growth charts. There is a wide range of physical characteristics. Variations in individuals are identified by diagnosing and monitoring the underlying disorders. There may not be any complications outside adapting to their size.
Short stature is a common replacement of the term ‘dwarfism’, especially in a medical context. Short stature is clinically defined as a height within the lowest 2.3% of those in the general population. However, those with mild skeletal dysplasias may not be affected by dwarfism. In some cases of untreated hypochondroplasia, males grow up to 5 feet 5 inches. Though that is short in a relative context, it does not fall into the extreme ranges of the growth charts.
Disproportionate dwarfism is characterized by shortened limbs or a shortened torso. In achondroplasia one has an average-sized trunk with short limbs and a larger forehead. Facial features are often affected and individual body parts may have problems associated with them. Spinal stenosis, ear infection, and hydrocephalus are common. In case of spinal dysostosis, one has a small trunk, with average-sized limbs.
Proportionate dwarfism is marked by a short torso with short limbs, thus leading to a height that is significantly below average. There may be long periods without any significant growth. Sexual development is often delayed or impaired into adulthood. This dwarfism type is caused by an endocrine disorder and not a skeletal dysplasia.
Physical effects of malformed bones vary according to the specific disease. Many involve joint pain caused by abnormal bone alignment, or from nerve compression. Early degenerative joint disease, exaggerated lordosis or scoliosis, and constriction of spinal cord or nerve roots can cause pain and disability. Reduced thoracic size can restrict lung growth and reduce pulmonary function. Some forms of dwarfism are associated with disordered function of other organs, such as the brain or liver, sometimes severely enough to be more of an impairment than the unusual bone growth.
Mental effects also vary according to the specific underlying syndrome. In most cases of skeletal dysplasia, such as achondroplasia, mental function is not impaired. However, there are syndromes which can affect the cranial structure and growth of the brain, severely impairing mental capacity. Unless the brain is directly affected by the underlying disorder, there is little to no chance of mental impairment that can be attributed to dwarfism.
The psycho-social limitations of society may be more disabling than the physical symptoms, especially in childhood and adolescence, but people with dwarfism vary greatly in the degree to which social participation and emotional health are affected.
Social prejudice against extreme shortness may reduce social and marital opportunities.
Numerous studies have demonstrated reduced employment opportunities. Severe shortness is associated with lower income.
Self-esteem may suffer and family relationships may be affected.
Extreme shortness (in the low 2–3-foot [60–90 cm] range) can, if not accommodated for, interfere with activities of daily living, like driving or using countertops built for taller people. Other common attributes of dwarfism such as bowed knees and unusually short fingers can lead to back problems, and difficulty in walking and handling objects.
Children with dwarfism are particularly vulnerable to teasing and ridicule from classmates. Because dwarfism is relatively uncommon, children may feel isolated from their peers.
Dwarfism is often diagnosed in childhood on the basis of visible symptoms. A physical examination can usually suffice to diagnose certain types of dwarfism, but genetic testing and diagnostic imaging may be used to determine the exact condition. In a person’s youth, growth charts that track height can be used to diagnose subtle forms of dwarfism that have no other striking physical characteristics.
Short stature or stunted growth during youth is usually what brings the condition to medical attention. Skeletal dysplasia is usually suspected because of obvious physical features (e.g., unusual configuration of face or shape of skull), because of an obviously affected parent, or because body measurements (arm span, upper to lower segment ratio) indicate disproportion. Bone X-rays are often key to diagnosing a specific skeletal dysplasia, but are not the sole diagnostic tool. Most children with suspected skeletal dysplasias are referred to a genetics clinic for diagnostic confirmation and genetic counseling. Since about the year 2000, genetic tests for some of the specific disorders have become available.
During an initial medical evaluation of shortness, the absence of disproportion and other clues listed above usually indicates causes other than bone dysplasias.
Many types of dwarfism are currently impossible to prevent because they are genetically caused. Genetic conditions that cause dwarfism may be identified with genetic testing, by screening for the specific variations that result in the condition. However, due to the number of causes of dwarfism, it may be impossible to determine definitively if a child will be born with dwarfism.
Dwarfism resulting from malnutrition or a hormonal abnormality may be treated with an appropriate diet or hormonal therapy. Growth hormone deficiency may be remedied via injections of human growth hormone (HGH) during early life.
Genetic mutations of most forms of dwarfism caused by bone dysplasia cannot be altered yet, so therapeutic interventions are typically aimed at preventing or reducing pain or physical disability, increasing adult height, or mitigating psychosocial stresses and enhancing social adaptation.
Forms of dwarfism associated with the endocrine system may be treated using hormonal therapy. If the cause is prepubescent hyposecretion of growth hormone, supplemental growth hormone may correct the abnormality. If the receptor for growth hormone is itself affected, the condition may prove harder to treat. Hypothyroidism is another possible cause of dwarfism that can be treated through hormonal therapy. Injections of thyroid hormone can mitigate the effects of the condition, but lack of proportion may be permanent.
Pain and disability may be ameliorated by physical therapy, braces or other orthotic devices, or by surgical procedures. The only simple interventions that increase perceived adult height are dress enhancements, such as shoe lifts or hairstyle. Growth hormone is rarely used for shortness caused by bone dysplasias, since the height benefit is typically small (less than 5 cm ) and the cost high. The most effective means of increasing adult height by several inches is distraction osteogenesis, though availability is limited and the cost is high in terms of money, discomfort, and disruption of life. Most people with dwarfism do not choose this option, and it remains controversial. For other types of dwarfism, surgical treatment is not possible.