Chances are, everything you know about little people you may have learned from television. As it turns out, there's a lot of myths, and a lot to understand about the condition.

Myth #1: Dwarfism is a disease

Dwarfism is not a disease, but a genetic anomaly that occurs during prenatal development. More than 200 conditions can cause dwarfism, but 70 percent of cases are caused by achondroplasia. According to the National Institutes of Health, achondroplasia affects about 1 in 15,000 to 1 in 40,000 people, making their arms and legs short in comparison to their head and trunk. Other genetic conditions, kidney disease and problems with metabolism or hormones can also cause short stature.

Myth #2: Dwarfism is a form of mental retardation

The condition is a genetic disorder that affects bone and cartilage. Little people are born with the same intellect, and have the same life expectancy of people with normal height.

The March of Dimes explains that, "during fetal development and childhood, cartilage normally develops into bone, except in a few places, such as the nose and ears. In individuals with achondroplasia, something goes wrong during this process, especially in the long bones (such as those of the upper arms and thighs). The rate at which cartilage cells in the growth plates of the long bones turn into bone is slow, leading to short bones and reduced height."

The condition may be picked up during prenatal ultrasounds or amniocentesis, but if not, it's usually obvious at birth. The diagnosis will be confirmed with X-rays and if there's any lingering doubt, through genetic testing.

Myth #3: Little people are never taller than four feet

A person with dwarfism can reach an adult height of 4'10", however, the average height is 4 feet (with typical heights ranging from 2'8" to 4'8"). Physical characteristics include:

  • Arms and legs are short and upper arms and thighs are shorter than forearms and calves.
  • Head is large, with a prominent forehead and nose that is flat at the bridge. Hands and feet are short and there's a separation between their middle and ring fingers.

Myth #4: Little people are healthy despite their short stature

Children with dwarfism have normal intellectual development, but they're at risk for a number of health complications that can affect their physical development.

  • Babies have poor muscle tone, which can cause delays as they learn to sit, stand and walk.
  • A small hump may develop on the upper back of babies due to poor muscle tone, but this usually disappears when they start walking.
  • Children usually develop a curved lower spine and bowed legs.
  • Narrow nasal passages in children may lead to more ear infections than average and can lead to hearing loss if they aren't treated.
  • A small jaw may cause tooth alignment to be poor.
  • Approximately 2 to 5 percent of babies and very young children with achondroplasia are at risk for sudden death, usually during sleep as a result from spinal cord compression interfering with breathing.
  • Adolescents and adults with achondroplasia often develop low back pain or weakness, tingling and pain in the legs due to pressure from a small spinal canal.

Myth #5: There is medical treatment for dwarfism

Unfortunately, there's no treatment available to normalize skeletal development. The health complications sometimes associated with dwarfism, however, can be treated through a variety of medical treatments.

Myth #5: Dwarfism is hereditary

In more than 80 percent of cases, dwarfism is not inherited, but forms out of a spontaneous genetic mutation. If one parent has achondroplasia, their child has a 50 percent chance of inheriting it. The March of Dimes says that if both parents have it, their child has a:

  • 50 percent chance of inheriting the condition
  • 25 percent chance they won't have it
  • 25 percent chance they will inherit one abnormal gene from each parent and have severe skeletal abnormalities that lead to early death.

Prenatal genetic testing can help parents determine whether their child has a fatal form of achondroplasia. Achondroplasia can't be prevented either, but with supportive health care, people born with this condition can live normal life spans and quality of life.

Dennis Bley, DO, reviewed this article.




National Institutes of Health

March of Dimes