Background: Growth failure without organic aetiology but associated with behavioural disturbance and psychosocial stress has been termed psychosocial short stature. This condition is not a valid diagnostic entity, but encompasses failure to thrive, stunting secondary to chronic malnutrition, and idiopathic hypopituitarism. Some children show spontaneous catch-up growth when removed from the source of stress, without further treatment, but until now precise definition of this subgroup for the purpose of clinical identification has not been possible.
Methods: Hospital-referred children with growth failure unrelated to organic pathology, who came from stressful homes, were compared with children of short-normal stature identified from an epidemiological survey (n = 31). Growth-hormone dynamics were studied in the hospital group by a combination of diurnal profiles and provocation tests. The tests were repeated after a hospital stay of 3 weeks away from familial stress. Standard behavioural measures were obtained from home and school.
Findings: In a distinctive subgroup (n = 29), growth-hormone insufficiency was associated with characteristic behavioural features, especially hyperphagia and polydipsia, and a normal body-mass index. When the children were removed from their stressful home circumstances, growth-hormone insufficiency spontaneously resolved only in formerly hyperphagic subjects. 74% of the non-hyperphagic cases (n = 23) were anorexic, with a low body-mass index and normal growth-hormone responses to provocation tests.
Interpretation: We present explicit behavioural and developmental criteria by which the novel syndrome of hyperphagic short stature may be recognised clinically. Such children have a capacity for spontaneous recovery of growth-hormone production on removal from or reduction of stress. Discriminant and predictive validity of the core symptoms are demonstrated. Preliminary familial studies indicate a possible genetic predisposition.