A new approach to the diagnosis of short stature

Minerva Pediatr. 2020 Aug;72(4):250-262. doi: 10.23736/S0026-4946.20.05835-1.


Growth is the task of children. We review the normal process of linear growth from the fetus through adolescence and note that growth is the result of age- and gender-dependent interactions among key genetic, environmental, dietary, socioeconomic, developmental, behavioral, nutritional, metabolic, biochemical, and hormonal factors. We then define the wide range of normative data at each stage of growth and note that a pattern within this range is generally indicative of good general health and that growth significantly slower than this range may lead to growth faltering and subsequent short stature. Although not often emphasized, we detail how to properly measure infants and children because height velocity is usually determined from two height measurements (both relatively large values) to calculate the actual height velocity (a relatively much smaller number in comparison). Traditionally the physiology of growth has been taught from an endocrine-centric point-of-view. Here we review the hypothalamic-pituitary-end organ axes for the GH/IGF-1 and gonadal steroid hormones (hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis), both during "mini"-puberty as well as at puberty. However, over the past few decades much more emphasis has been placed on the growth plate and its many interactions with the endocrine system but also with its own intrinsic physiology and gene mutations. These latter, whether individually (large effect size) or in combination with many others including endocrine system-based, may account in toto for meaningful differences in adult height. The clinical assessment of children with short stature includes medical, social and family history, physical exam and importantly proper interpretation of the growth curve. This analysis should lead to judicious use of screening laboratory and imaging tests depending on the pre-test probability (Bayesian inference) of a particular diagnosis in that child. In particular for those with no pathological features in the history and physical exam and a low, but normal height velocity, may lead only to a bone age exam and reevaluation (re-measurement), perhaps 6 months later. he next step depends on the comfort level of the primary care physician, the patient, and the parent; that is, whether to continue with the evaluation with more directed, more sophisticated testing, again based on Bayesian inference or to seek consultation with a subspecialist pediatrician based on the data obtained. This is not necessarily an endocrinologist. The newest area and the one most in flux is the role for genetic testing, given that growth is a complex process with large effect size for single genes but smaller effect sizes for multiple other genes which in the aggregate may be relevant to attained adult height. Genetics is a discipline that is rapidly changing, especially as the cost of exome or whole gene sequencing diminishes sharply. Within a decade it is quite likely that a genetic approach to the evaluation of children with short stature will become the standard, truncating the diagnostic odyssey and be cost effective as fewer biochemical and imaging studies are required to make a proper diagnosis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Age Determination by Skeleton / methods
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Body Height / genetics
  • Body Height / physiology
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Gene-Environment Interaction
  • Genetic Testing / trends
  • Growth / genetics
  • Growth / physiology*
  • Growth Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Growth Disorders / etiology
  • Growth Hormone / metabolism
  • Growth Plate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I / metabolism
  • Male
  • Medical History Taking
  • Physical Examination
  • Puberty / physiology
  • Sex Factors


  • IGF1 protein, human
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I
  • Growth Hormone