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Dwarfism Explained

Dwarfism is shortness of stature that stems from a genetic or medical condition. It is generally defined as 4 feet 10 inches or under in grown adults, while the average height among adults with dwarfism is 4 feet. In the U.S. there are an estimated 30,000 people with dwarfism; worldwide, the number is approximately 652,000.

Dwarfism is a condition that has long been stigmatized simply because little people (the preferred term) are considerably shorter than the average person and sometimes look different due to disproportion of limbs, head and chest. Many myths and false beliefs surround this condition, but most are completely wrong. Little people are just that: extremely short people with the same intellectual, emotional and (sometimes limited) physical capacity as taller people.

Dwarfism is divided into two different categories: proportionate dwarfism and disproportionate dwarfism.

Proportionate dwarfism applies to little people whose bodies are proportionately developed – if all parts of the body are small to the same degree so that the body looks like a smaller, correctly proportioned version of a normal-height individual. This condition can be apparent at birth or appear in early childhood.

A common cause of proportionate dwarfism is the deficiency of growth hormone, which occurs when the pituitary gland does not produce and supply enough growth hormones to the body, resulting in a lack of growth in childhood. This can sometimes be the result of a genetic mutation, but for most little people with this disorder, no specific cause has been identified.

Disproportionate dwarfism applies when some parts of the body are larger or smaller than the other parts. This is often manifested by an average size trunk and disproportionately short arms; it may also be the opposite, with a very short trunk and disproportionately large limbs. Often, in disproportionate dwarfism, the head is very large compared to the body.

Approximately 80% of all people with disproportionate dwarfism disorder are born to parents of normal size, but suffer from a disorder called achondroplasia. This is what causes the disproportion of head, limbs or trunk, and is marked by progressively developing bowed legs, curved lower back and limited mobility at the elbows.

Disproportionate dwarfism can also be caused in females only by a chromosomal condition called Turner syndrome. Turner syndrome is caused by a missing or partially missing X chromosome, which causes delayed puberty and/or infertility. Hormone treatment is often used to bring on puberty in women suffering from Turner syndrome.

Between one third and one half of all women with Turner syndrome are born with heart defects such as abnormalities of the aortic valve or narrowing of the large artery leaving the heart. In these cases, these heart defects and the complications they produce can be fatal.

Two other conditions of dwarfism are far more rare than Turner syndrome. Spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenital (SEDc) can cause club feet, barrel chested appearance and a shortened trunk. Diastrophic Dysplasia, an extremely rare form of dwarfism, is marked by distorted bone and cartilage growth, deformed hands and feet and cauliflower ears.

Myths vs. Fact

• The belief that little people have shortened life spans is false: dwarfism is not an early death sentence, and while it can and does cause physical problems, especially with mobility, most LPs enjoy a normal life span.
• The belief that dwarfs are different because they have cognitive problems is false. Dwarfism is not the same as retardation, and the majority of little people have normal intelligence.
• Adult little people can only give birth to children with dwarfism is not entirely correct. While it’s true that the odds do not favor a couple with dwarfism having children of normal height, it can and does happen.
• Average sized adults cannot give birth to children with dwarfism. As discussed above, this is not true; 80 percent of children with dwarfism have parents and/or siblings of average height.

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