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Lancet. 1996 Aug 10;348(9024):353-8.

A new stress-related syndrome of growth failure and hyperphagia in children, associated with reversibility of growth-hormone insufficiency.

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  • 1Behavioural Sciences Unit, Institute of Child Health, London, UK.



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.


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.


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.


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.

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