How IBD Affects Growth in Kids and Teens

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Serious medical conditions are often thought of as being adult problems, but children can develop digestive diseases, and, in fact, about a quarter of all patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are diagnosed as children. Kids with IBD face a host of growth complications and for some children, a slow down in their growth pattern may be the first sign that they have IBD. Normal growth in kids with IBD can be adversely affected by such factors as intestinal inflammation, malnutrition, reduced calorie intake, and medication side effects.

One major concern is that the bone growth in kids with IBD may lag behind that of children of the same age who do not have IBD. To learn more about how one's height as an adult may be affected by IBD in childhood, I turned to UpToDate—a trusted electronic reference used by many physicians and patients looking for in-depth medical information.

"Because children with pubertal delay usually have delayed bone age, some catch-up growth is possible after the onset of puberty. However, growth during puberty may also be compromised in those with prolonged inflammatory disease, malnutrition, or corticosteroid therapy, so adult height may be affected."

Several factors may negatively affect the eventual adult height of a child who has IBD, including long-standing, active disease; poor nutrition; and taking steroid drugs such as prednisone to reduce inflammation. Crohn's disease, in particular, is associated with more growth problems in children than is ulcerative colitis, but all forms of IBD can have negative effects on growth.

Proper Nutrition and Remission

In order to combat these factors, care must be taken to ensure that children with IBD receive proper nutrition and get their disease under control as quickly as possible. Achieving remission during puberty is an important part of helping ensure that bone growth and growth spurts occur at a more normal rate. 

One treatment that is not typically used in adults but is used in children is exclusive enteral nutrition (EEN). In EEN, most nutrients (up to 90% of necessary calories) are taken in through special nutritional drinks and/or a feeding tube if needed. This treatment method has been found to be as effective as steroids in inducing remission and has also been shown to promote mucosal healing in some patients.  

Altering Treatment Plans

Using medications other than steroids whenever possible is another strategy that may help preserve bone growth in children with IBD. When steroids are needed, taking them every other day (instead of every day) and reducing the dosage as quickly as safely possible are also used to help preserve bone health in children. (If your child is currently on steroids, do not change his or her dose without talking to their physician.) It is well-known that steroids adversely affect bones, and can even lead to osteoporosis.

Minimizing the effects that IBD has on a child's growth can ensure that children who have IBD have the best chance of achieving a normal growth rate and adult height. There's a trend toward treating IBD in children more aggressively than in adults in order to achieve remission quickly and to preserve normal bone growth. Specialists may recommend treating the IBD with a "top-down" approach instead of a "step-up" approach. What this means is that a pediatric gastroenterologist might recommend a biologic (which may be given by infusion or injection or a combination of both) as a first treatment, rather than trying older oral or topical medications and waiting to see what happens. For those children that are diagnosed before puberty, this approach may help achieve a more typical growth pattern prior to adolescence.

A Word From Verywell

In some cases, poor growth might be the first indicator that IBD is a problem for a child. For children with IBD, growth might not keep up with what's typical, and growth percentages might actually decrease. In that case, steps need to be taken to get the IBD under control and to bring growth back up to where it should be.

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