Achondroplasia

Achondroplasia is the most common skeletal dysplasia. Although the exact incidence is not known estimates range from 1 in 15,000 to 1 in 26,000 births. The name literally means failure or lack of cartilage formation. This is not strictly true as cartilage formation does occur in the growth plates of patients with achondroplasia.

 
How Achondroplasia Is Inherited
A child with achondroplasia and his brother

Achondroplasia is inherited in an autosomal dominant manner, but about 75 percent of patients with achondroplasia represent new mutations. These new mutations typically arise from the father during sperm formation. Paternal age greater than 35 years has been found to be a risk factor (3,4).

 
Causes of Achondroplasia

Achondroplasia is caused by a mutation in the fibroblast growth factor receptor-3 (FGFR-3) gene (3). Mutations which change the amino acid glycine to arginine at position 380 of the FGFR-3 protein account for >97 percent of all reported cases of achondroplasia. Normally the FGFR-3 protein functions as "brake" for endochondral bone growth. This typical G380R mutation actually increases the ability of the FGFR-3 protein to slow bone growth and causes the features of achondroplasia. This type of change associated with an increased ability is termed a "gain-of-function" mutation (4).

 
Physical Characteristics

Achondroplasia causes disproportionate short stature. Specifically the limbs are disprorportionately small when compared to the trunk. Within the limbs the proximal segment is shorter causing rhizomelia. The average adult height is 52" in men and 49" in women with achondroplasia. Achondroplasts have average intelligence and can lead very rich and productive lives.

Face and Skull:
  • The head circumference may be larger than average.
  • The forehead tends to be prominent. This is termed frontal bossing.
  • The nasal bridge tends to be depressed and the nostrils are upturned.
  • The mid-face is underdeveloped, which is termed maxillary hypoplasia.
  • The foramen magnum, which is the opening in the skull base through which the spinal cord passes, is smaller then average.
Drawing of a child with achondroplasia
Trunk, Chest and Spine:
  • Thoraco-lumbar kyphosis (TLK) is present in most infants with achondroplasia and is a normal finding. It can be seen represented in the drawing on the right as the prominence in the lower back(5).
  • The TLK is replaced in later childhood by lumbar lordosis or sway back.
  • TLK is thought to be caused by the large head size and poor muscular tone in children who are not yet walking. It improves without treatment in 90% of affected children as they begin to walk.
  • The chest usually is broad and flat. The abdomen and buttocks
    are prominent.
  • The spinal canal is smaller than average in achondroplasia.
Drawing of an achondroplasia patient's hands
Arms and Legs:
  • There is marked ligamentous laxity or loose joints.
  • Despite the loose joints, typically the elbows cannot be fully extended. Less commonly the elbow joint may be out of place. This rarely causes symptoms or loss of function.
  • In infancy and early childhood there is extra space between the third and fourth fingers. This is termed trident hand and disappears spontaneously in later childhood. The drawing below demonstrates the trident (5).
  • The fingers are short and broad giving rise to a stubby appearance.
X-ray of an achondroplasia patient
What Are the X-Ray Characteristics?

Long bones are relatively plump and short. Proximal humerus and femur in infancy have distinctive rectangular or translucent ovals that change by 2 years. Fibulas tend to be longer than tibias.

Spacing between vertebral pedicles decreases rather than increases in the lumbar spine as you move from head to pelvis.

The pelvis is short and broad with wide, non-flaring iliac wings.

 
Making the Diagnosis

For parents of average stature, achondroplasia is sometimes detected by the presence of short limbs on routine prenatal ultrasound performed after 22 weeks. In this situation, the diagnosis can then be confirmed by molecular genetic testing techniques using fetal DNA obtained through amniocentesis. Cesarean section is recommended to deliver babies with achondroplasia, due to their large head size and risk of compression of the brain during the course of a vaginal delivery.

For parents who have achondroplasia or average-statured parents with a previously born child with achondroplasia, amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling (CVS) can be performed. Using cells obtained by these techniques, DNA testing can then be performed and used to identify homozygous/ heterozygous achondroplasia in the pregnancy.

Most neonates with achondroplasia have average lengths and weights at birth. It is our belief that as many as 15 percent of children with achondroplasia are not recognized at birth.

In the neonate, infant, older child or adult, the diagnosis of achondroplasia can be made by an experienced physician (usually a clinical geneticist) on the basis of physical and radiologic examinations.

Sequencing of the FGFR-3 gene can be done in all patients, but is only required in unusual cases or cases of doubt.

 
Associated Medical Problems
X-ray of foramen magnum stenosis on an achondroplasia patient

Foramen magnum stenosis: As mentioned above, essentially all children with achondroplasia have a smaller than average foramen magnum. The foramen magnum is the opening through which the spinal cord leads the head to travel down the spinal column. For the vast majority of children this does not present a problem. There are, however approximately 5 percent or fewer of children with achondroplasia in whom this opening is so small that there is not adequate room for the spinal cord to function properly. These children have what is termed cord compression or compressive myelopathy. This is a very serious medical problem and requires surgical correction. Cord compression due to foramen magnum stenosis has been implicated as the cause of sudden death in a very small proportion of infants with achondroplasia. As with all surgeries performed on Little People, we suggest that care be taken to assure that the physician has experience not only with the procedure, but also performing the procedure on Little People.

Hydrocephalus: Enlargement of head circumference occurs invariably in achondroplasia but does not require treatment unless pressure within the skull (intracranial pressure) increases and interferes with brain function. Standard charts for normal head circumference throughout childhood in achondroplasia are available. If there is any deviation from average, an opinion should be obtained from a neurosurgeon regarding the need for a ventriculoperitoneal shunt (a tube that drains excess fluid from the brain into the abdominal cavity).

Sleep apneas or Sleep-disordered breathing — 2 types: Sleep disordered breathing is common in achondroplasia with studies demonstrating a very wide range of affected children ranging from 22–85 percent. As many as 20 percent of children could be severely affected (6). There are 2 types of apneas or disordered breathing and they will be discussed separately.

  • Obstructive apnea — results from the blockage of airflow into and out of the lungs with normal respiratory drive. This is the most common type of apnea in achondroplasia because of the mid-face hypoplasia and hypotonia of the pharyngeal muscles. The end result is a "smaller pipe" for the air to travel through. Many children with achondroplasia adopt an open mouth habitus with the tongue resting on the lower lip to create maximum airway space. This commonly manifests as snoring and causes disturbed sleep. Symptoms can include tiredness, irritability, daytime sleeping, etc. Treatment for obstructive apnea can include weight reduction measures, adenoidectomy-tonsillectomy, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) or bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP) at night by nasal mask to keep the airways open. A tracheostomy may be necessary in the most severe cases.
  • Central apnea — results from failure of the respiratory centers in the brain to properly control the process of breathing. In the brainstem, the respiratory centers are in close proximity to the foramen magnum. Therefore, if the foramen magnum is compressing the spinal cord central apnea can result.
 
Musculoskeletal Problems
Photo and x-ray of achondroplasia patient's legs

Genu Varum is more common than genu valgus in achondroplasia. Knock-knees do not need treatment because they do not progress. Bowlegs however can result in symptoms around the knee such as pain and restricted walking ability. Pain around the knee due to bowing should be distinguished from knee pain due to spinal stenosis. A child with achondroplasia and genu varum with associated x-rays is shown below.

Some experts believed that relative overgrowth of the fibula compared to the tibia causes the knee to bend inwards. Therefore, surgery in the past relied on stopping growth in the fibula (epiphyseodesis) or removing a portion of the fibula.

A more recent analysis of this problem has shown that the bend occurs in the lower part of the femur and the upper part of the tibia. In addition, the tibia is twisted along its axis (internal tibial torsion). A few questions need to be answered through long-term studies before treatment can be advocated for genu varum.

  • Does genu varum in achondroplasia affect long-term function?
  • Does it pose an increased risk for knee arthritis in future?
  • How does surgical correction influence natural history?

We are still in the process of addressing these issues and definite answers may not be available immediately. Symptomatic knee arthritis is not a frequent problem in adults with achondroplasia and this is perhaps a reassuring fact for parents. The current recommendation is to undergo surgery only in the presence of bothersome symptoms or if there is severe deformity. Bracing is not advocated because it is difficult to exert enough corrective forces on the bones in the presence of ligamentous laxity.

Spinal stenosis in the lumbar spine is very common in young adults with achondroplasia, though it can occur at any age. The narrow spinal canal found in achondroplasia and the normal size of the spinal cord and cauda equina (nerve bundle at the base of the spine) mean that there is less room for the spinal cord in the achondroplastic spine. In some patients, this narrowing of the vertebral canal results in compression of the nerves. Symptoms include activity-related leg pain that is relieved on squatting down, tingling, pins and needles, or numbness in the feet (paraesthesias), weakness of the legs or rarely, disturbances in control of bladder or bowel function (incontinence). X-rays, CT and MRI scans of the lower spine, confirm the diagnosis. We believe that obesity greatly increases the risk of this problem developing.

Drawing of an achondroplasia patient laying on stomach

Fixed TLK: As mentioned above, most infants with achondroplasia have a TLK and this is normal. In the vast majority of patients, as the child begins to walk, the TLK will spontaneously resolve without treatment. In some children however, the TLK will become fixed or permanent. Prolonged unsupported sitting likely predisposes this to occur. Bracing can be done to treat this problem and, if severe enough, surgery may be required. Typically, when a child is laid on their belly, the thoraco-lumbar region will flatten and indicate that the TLK is flexible. When, however a child is placed face down and a hump in the spine is seen, as pictured below, the TLK is said to be fixed and treatment will be required (5).

 
Problems Elsewhere in the Body
Obesity

Obesity is a common problem in children and adults of all statures, but especially with achondroplasia. Continuous monitoring for obesity is the first step in maintaining an ideal body weight. The problem is compounded if the weight and height charts which were prepared for average-statured children are used for children with achondroplasia. A weight-for-height chart is available specifically for children with achondroplasia and is a useful guide for weight management. Attention to weight issues in childhood is very important as we believe that obesity will significantly increase the risk for spinal problems in young adults or adults with achondroplasia. Equally important to dietary management is attention to physical activities and appropriate exercise.

Pregnancy

Females with achondroplasia may require a cesarean section for delivery due to the reduced size and shape of the pelvis.

ENT

The mid-face is underdeveloped in achondroplasia. This causes several problems in the ear, nose and throat region.

This hypoplasia can lead to overcrowding of the teeth and malocclusion. These problems may also contribute to articulation/speech defects. Sometimes children may have tongue thrust which affects speech clarity.

The Eustachian tube is a normal connection between the middle ear and the upper throat. In achondroplasia, the anatomy of this tube is distorted and persistent fluid in the middle ear can occur. Over the long term, this leads to conductive hearing loss. Hearing should be checked frequently during the growing years. Deafness can also result from poorly formed middle ear bones or due to compression of the brain stem at the foramen magnum. Ear infections are easily treated, and the use of middle ear tubes is common. Because of anatomical differences, we suggest that care be taken to assure that the physician has experience not only with the procedure, but also performing the procedure on Little People.

 
What to Watch for

Given the differences in head size relative to body size in achondroplasia and average children, it is inappropriate to use the average developmental charts to assess an a child with achondroplasia. There are developmental charts for children with achondroplasia and it is critical that these be used.

We often see children with poor head control at several months of age be referred for physical therapy because this is expected for an average-sized child. This should not be done. Infants with achondroplasia receiving physical therapy will not develop head or trunk control at a more rapid rate. Furthermore, the typical exercises done greatly increase the risk for cord compression related to foramen magnum stenosis.

Extreme care should be taken in the position and handling of infants so as to minimize the occurrence of sudden abnormal head and neck motion. The avoidance of soft swings, umbrella strollers and jumpers is recommended. No backpack carriers or front-pack carriers should be used until the child gains complete and total head control.

Properly installed rear-facing car seats with neck support when traveling in a car are important safety measures. This practice should be continued until the child is 20 pounds regardless of age.

Head size should be monitored carefully at least every three months and at most most, monthly in the first few years of life.

We believe that the parents should become comfortable with feeling the anterior fontanelle or soft spot located on top of the infants skull. The fontanelle should be soft and flat. If the fontanelle becomes hard (like a table top) or bulging when the child is at rest, then this should be brought to immediate medical attention.

Diminishing motor milestones, decreased endurance, apnea or any neurological symptoms should be quickly evaluated by an experienced physician.

Speech delay may indicate underlying conductive hearing loss.

Sleep disturbance may indicate cord compression or obstructive sleep apnea and should be brought to an experienced physicians attention immediately.

 
References
  1. Smith's Recognizable Patterns of Human Malformation. Ed. Jones KL. 6th edition. Elsevier Saunders. 2005.
  2. Hunter AG, Bankier A, Rogers JG, Sillence D, Scott CI Jr. Medical complications of achondroplasia: a multicentre patient review. J Med Genet. 1998 Sep;35(9):705-12.
  3. Trotter TL, Hall JG; American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Genetics. Health supervision for children with achondroplasia. Pediatrics. 2005 Sep;116(3):771-83.
  4. Wilkin DJ, Szabo JK, Cameron R, Henderson S, Bellus GA, Mack ML, Kaitila I, Loughlin J, Munnich A, Sykes B, Bonaventure J, Francomano CA. Mutations in fibroblast growth-factor receptor 3 in sporadic cases of achondroplasia occur exclusively on the paternally derived chromosome. Am J Hum Genet. 1998 Sep;63(3):711-6.
  5. Scott, Charles I. Dwarfism. CIBA Clinical Symposia, 1988. All drawings were done by Dr. Frank Netter and are used with permission from Novartis AG.
  6. Mogayzel PJ Jr, Carroll JL, Loughlin GM, Hurko O, Francomano CA, Marcus CL. Sleep-disordered breathing in children with achondroplasia. J Pediatr. 1998 Apr;132(4):667-71.

Genetic Testing

Genetic tests are done by analyzing small samples of blood or body tissues. They determine whether you, your partner, or your baby carry genes for certain inherited disorders.

Genetic testing has developed enough so that doctors can often pinpoint missing or defective genes. The type of genetic test needed to make a specific diagnosis depends on the particular illness that a doctor suspects.

Many different types of body fluids and tissues can be used in genetic testing. For deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) screening, only a very tiny bit of blood, skin, bone, or other tissue is needed.

Genetic Testing During Pregnancy

For genetic testing before birth, pregnant women may decide to undergo amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling. There is also a blood test available to women to screen for some disorders. If this screening test finds a possible problem, amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling may be recommended.

Amniocentesis is a test usually performed between weeks 15 and 20 of a woman's pregnancy. The doctor inserts a hollow needle into the woman's abdomen to remove a small amount of amniotic fluid from around the developing fetus. This fluid can be tested to check for genetic problems and to determine the sex of the child. When there's risk of premature birth, amniocentesis may be done to see how far the baby's lungs have matured. Amniocentesis carries a slight risk of inducing a miscarriage.

Chorionic villus sampling (CVS) is usually performed between the 10th and 12th weeks of pregnancy. The doctor removes a small piece of the placenta to check for genetic problems in the fetus. Because chorionic villus sampling is an invasive test, there's a small risk that it can induce a miscarriage.

Why Doctors Recommend Genetic Testing

A doctor may recommend genetic counseling or testing for any of the following reasons:

  • A couple plans to start a family and one of them or a close relative has an inherited illness. Some people are carriers of genes for genetic illnesses, even though they don't show, or manifest, the illness themselves. This happens because some genetic illnesses are recessive — meaning that they're only expressed if a person inherits two copies of the problem gene, one from each parent. Offspring who inherit one problem gene from one parent but a normal gene from the other parent won't have symptoms of a recessive illness but will have a 50% chance of passing the problem gene on to their children.
  • A parent already has one child with a severe birth defect. Not all children who have birth defects have genetic problems. Sometimes, birth defects are caused by exposure to a toxin (poison), infection, or physical trauma before birth. Often, the cause of a birth defect isn't known. Even if a child does have a genetic problem, there's always a chance that it wasn't inherited and that it happened because of some spontaneous error in the child's cells, not the parents' cells.
  • A woman has had two or more miscarriages. Severe chromosome problems in the fetus can sometimes lead to a spontaneous miscarriage. Several miscarriages may point to a genetic problem.
  • A woman has delivered a stillborn child with physical signs of a genetic illness. Many serious genetic illnesses cause specific physical abnormalities that give an affected child a very distinctive appearance.
  • The pregnant woman is over age 34. Chances of having a child with a chromosomal problem (such as trisomy) increase when a pregnant woman is older. Older fathers are at risk to have children with new dominant genetic mutations (those caused by a single genetic defect that hasn't run in the family before).
  • A standard prenatal screening test had an abnormal result. If a screening test indicates a possible genetic problem, genetic testing may be recommended.
  • A child has medical problems that might be genetic. When a child has medical problems involving more than one body system, genetic testing may be recommended to identify the cause and make a diagnosis.
  • A child has medical problems that are recognized as a specific genetic syndrome. Genetic testing is performed to confirm the diagnosis. In some cases, it also might aid in identifying the specific type or severity of a genetic illness, which can help identify the most appropriate treatment.

A Word of Caution

Although advances in genetic testing have improved doctors' ability to diagnose and treat certain illnesses, there are still some limits. Genetic tests can identify a particular problem gene, but can't always predict how severely that gene will affect the person who carries it. In cystic fibrosis, for example, finding a problem gene on chromosome number 7 can't necessarily predict whether a child will have serious lung problems or milder respiratory symptoms.

Also, simply having problem genes is only half the story because many illnesses develop from a mix of high-risk genes and environmental factors. Knowing that you carry high-risk genes may actually be an advantage if it gives you the chance to modify your lifestyle to avoid becoming sick.

As research continues, genes are being identified that put people at risk for illnesses like cancer, heart disease, psychiatric disorders, and many other medical problems. The hope is that someday it will be possible to develop specific types of gene therapy to totally prevent some diseases and illnesses.

Gene therapy is already being studied as a possible way to treat conditions like cystic fibrosis, cancer, and ADA deficiency (an immune deficiency), sickle cell disease, hemophilia, and thalassemia. However, severe complications have occurred in some patients receiving gene therapy, so current research with gene therapy is very carefully controlled.

Although genetic treatments for some conditions may be a long way off, there is still great hope that many more genetic cures will be found. The Human Genome Project, which was completed in 2003, identified and mapped out all of the genes (about 25,000) carried in our human chromosomes. The map is just the start, but it's a very hopeful beginning.

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: September 26, 2016