Growth hormone

Adult playfully throwing a child into the air

What is growth hormone?

Growth hormone (also known as HGH – human growth hormone – and somatropin ) is a protein produced by the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is a pea-sized gland at the base of the brain and is part of a series of glands that make up the endocrine system which also produces other important hormones for the body.

The main functions of growth hormone (GH) are to stimulate growth, cell reproduction and regeneration in humans and other animals.

Some diseases are treated with growth hormone, including:

Functions of growth hormone

The main functions it performs are to:

  • Increase height and muscle mass
  • Control the body's metabolism
  • Reduce body mass

Growth hormone isn’t limited to a person’s developmental stage during their childhood and teenage years: it’s produced throughout a person’s life. Some people are deficient in growth hormone and this can lead to various health problems. Similarly, having an excess of growth hormone can also cause problems.

This hormone affects and influences the process of glucose inhibition - it is a stimulant for producing proteins and breaks down fatty acids in the body. For example, when a person hasn’t eaten for a period, growth hormone maintains blood glucose levels and moves the reserved fat to have an alternate energy source for the body.

Conditions related to growth hormone issues

The main conditions of growth hormone are the following:

  • Growth hormone deficiency: In children, it can cause slow growth and cause weight problems or sexual maturity. Children with a growth hormone deficiency are of normal weight and height at birth. Slow growth can be seen for the first time during  breastfeeding and continue through childhood. In adults, it can cause tiredness, intolerance to glucose or muscle weakness, as well as alterations in metabolism.
  • Gigantism: When this adrenal disease occurs while the child is still growing (before the growth plates are closed) it is called gigantism and the most common cause is a benign tumour in the pituitary. If the disorder affects adults, it is called acromegaly. Children who suffer from this disease are often extremely large for their age. Some of the symptoms may include delayed puberty, front and mandibular prominence, large hands and feet with thick fingers, weakness, shortness of side vision, etc.
  • Acromegaly: This is a hormonal disorder that occurs when too much growth hormone is produced during adulthood. This causes an increase in the size of the bones, hands, feet and face.

Treatments for growth hormone-related conditions

Growth hormone deficiency is based on replacement therapy with growth hormones. Children may be given growth hormone injections on a daily basis, which can be done at home. This treatment is usually long-term and lasts for several years with check-ups from the paediatrician. Treatment can cause side effects such as headaches, fluid retention, muscle and joint pain, or slipping of the hip bones.

In the case of acromegaly and gigantism, surgery may be the solution as the pituitary tumour causing the disease can often be corrected. In other cases, the tumour is too large to completely remove and radiotherapy can be used to shrink the tumour. Medications can help block or reduce growth hormone secretion.

Who treats growth hormone-related conditions?

Specialists in endocrinology and child endocrinology treat conditions that derive from growth hormone abnormalities.

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