Dwarfism is a condition that is caused by your genes. Typically, it results in shorter-than-average height and can cause health problems like joint pain and heart disease. There are treatments available to help with the symptoms of dwarfism, but sometimes doctors will recommend surgery if they think it will help.
What is Dwarfism?
Dwarfism, also known as a dwarf, is a condition where a person has an unusually short height due to medical reasons. It is present at birth and caused by an abnormality in the growth of bones. Dwarfism can be genetic, or other conditions like bone deformities or endocrine disorders can cause it.
Dwarfism does not affect intelligence but overall health and well-being because shorter people have to deal with many physical challenges that taller people don’t. There are three types of dwarfism:
- Achondroplasia (the most common type) – Affects more than 80% of all cases.
- Osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease) – Affects about 5%
- Sotos syndrome – Only affects about 1% of people with dwarfism.
- Short stature: Most people with dwarfism are shorter than 4 feet and 8 inches
- Muscular problems: The muscles in their arms and legs may be weak, which can cause problems with posture.
- Vision and hearing problems: Many people with dwarfism have had poor vision or hearing loss from a young age, often requiring corrective lenses or hearing aids. Progressive-lensed glasses are sometimes needed to correct the vision problem. Surgical procedures on the eyes may be necessary for good vision and eye muscle surgery (strabismus).
- Breathing problems: People with short limbs need special attention when they use wheelchairs or walkers because they might not be able to sit upright properly due to their short stature and leg length discrepancy caused by short femur bones in one leg compared to another leg (Hemi-relocation).
- Trouble eating: Children with dwarfism may have difficulty chewing and swallowing food. This can lead to problems such as malnutrition. The condition also makes it harder for people with dwarfism to lose weight or keep it off.
- Other problems: People with dwarfism may have many health issues, including heart defects and joint problems. They are also at high risk for developing diabetes and respiratory diseases such as asthma or sleep apnea.
The main causes of dwarfism are genetic, environmental, and in utero.
Postnatal causes are rarer but can occur due to growth hormone deficiency or because the pituitary gland is abnormally small. These conditions may be caused by genetic mutations that affect how the body naturally uses the growth hormone it produces. This can lead to dwarfism if these hormones don’t reach their target tissues effectively—for example, in the bones and muscles—which results in skeletal abnormalities such as short limbs and spine curvature (scoliosis).
To diagnose dwarfism, your doctor will measure your height and check for symptoms that indicate a particular type of dwarfism.
This is done at birth or later in life if you are not growing as expected. If the diagnosis is made early, it can help plan for your child’s care throughout their development and adulthood.
If you are an adult and are still growing, your doctor may order blood tests to determine whether you have a hormone deficiency.
Treatment depends on the type of dwarfism you have. For example, if you have achondroplasia (the most common form), your doctor may prescribe medication to increase bone length and growth. Surgery can also help increase height in some cases.
Surgery is the most effective treatment for dwarfism. It can help with growth, mobility, and appearance symptoms.
Surgery can be used to correct some of the problems associated with dwarfisms, such as a heart defect or low bone density. Surgery may also be used if you have an additional health condition that affects your bones or joints (for example, osteogenesis imperfecta). Surgery is also sometimes performed to reduce pain caused by scoliosis or other conditions affecting the spine.
Osteotomy is a surgical procedure to lengthen the bones of your legs and arms. Your doctor will make an incision in your leg or arm, then remove a small piece of bone (osteotomy). This creates a space for new bone growth. After surgery, you’ll wear a cast or splint for several weeks while the bone heals.
Surgery can also treat scoliosis and other spinal deformities if they cause pain or limit movement. Surgery may also be performed to correct leg length discrepancies resulting from dwarfism.
Hormone therapy is used to treat symptoms of dwarfism. Hormones are chemicals that control many functions in your body. For example, growth hormone helps children grow taller, and estrogen helps girls develop breasts and menstrual periods at puberty.
Hormone treatment may be used for:
- Bone growth (to help prevent fractures)
- Muscle growth (to avoid muscle weakness)
- Sexual development (in boys who have delayed puberty)
Hormone treatment can also be used to treat symptoms of dwarfism that aren’t caused by a hormone deficiency. Hormonal therapy is usually given as injections or pills taken daily over several months.
Ongoing health care
As your child grows, you may want to monitor the following:
- Growth and development: Your doctor will likely recommend regular checkups with your child’s pediatrician. These visits will include a physical exam, including checking for signs of skeletal disorders or other conditions associated with dwarfism; a review of height and weight measurements; an assessment of overall development, including mental abilities; and sometimes tests such as hearing or vision screening.
- Nutrition and hydration status: Because people with dwarfism are small, they can have difficulty getting enough nutrition from food alone (we’ll discuss this below). In addition to helping ensure proper nutrition intake, monitoring your child’s hydration levels is also important because it helps detect dehydration early on—which can lead to serious health consequences if not treated promptly—or overhydration (elevated blood sodium levels).
- Blood pressure (BP): BP should be monitored regularly during childhood since children with a history of hypertension may be at risk for developing high blood pressure later in life due to changes in growth patterns during puberty or adulthood (in fact, 95% of all cases occur after age 20 years). It’s also recommended that adolescents get their first screening for high BP before 16 years old so that any potential problems can be caught early on.
- Physical activity: Physical activity can benefit people with dwarfism because it promotes bone health, muscle strength and endurance, and overall well-being. In addition, exercise has been shown to help manage weight gain in children with short stature by burning off more calories than their average height or tall peers.
Limb lengthening is a surgical procedure that can increase the length of the limbs. The procedure is done under general anesthesia and involves placing a metal device inside the bone to gradually pull it apart until you reach your desired height (or close enough). The surgeon makes an incision on your thigh bone and inserts a small device that will slowly pull apart your femur’s growth plate over several months.
The device is removed in a second surgery, and you’ll need to wear a brace for several weeks. The procedure is generally safe but can cause complications such as infection and stiffness in your knee joint. It’s also expensive: One report estimates that limb-lengthening costs about $70,000 per leg.
You should also be aware that the procedure is only sometimes successful. One study found that only 85 percent of patients had a satisfactory outcome after undergoing limb-lengthening surgery, and even then, their new height was only sometimes permanent.
Lifestyle and home remedies
It’s important to lead a healthy lifestyle, including eating well and exercising regularly. A good diet is important because it can help you maintain your ideal weight and avoid putting stress on your bones.
Exercise can help build muscle strength and improve flexibility, which helps prevent osteoporosis. It’s also important to maintain good posture, especially if you have scoliosis or kyphosis (curvature of the spine).
Avoiding weight gain is crucial because overweight or obese people are at increased risk of developing spine osteoarthritis. Weight loss can be accomplished through dieting or exercise; however, some people may need medical treatment for this purpose since losing weight may be difficult for some individuals who are disabled by their condition.
Good sleep hygiene may also help prevent back pain caused by scoliosis. Poor sleeping habits, such as staying in one position all night long, can cause muscles to become stiffer than normal, contributing greatly to developing problematic curvatures over time.
The best way to treat dwarfism is by watching for complications and addressing them as soon as possible. If you have concerns about your child’s future health, ensure they get checked out immediately to receive the treatment they need.