A little pain and gain

In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is believed to boost certain organ functions, which leads to an increase in height

Small school kids seated in front of the class may not have mattered decades ago. But the situation has changed today. Being short can be a serious problem for children and parents.

"Some kids want to be taller than they actually are for different reasons. Some want to be flight attendants or sportsmen when they grow up. And when it comes to achieving those careers, body height is a major factor," said Dr Juthamas Kuesakul, a specialist in traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture.

The Department of Health, Ministry of Public Health recently released a shocking figure with regards to body sizes and health among Thai kids. From a 2012 study conducted with approximately 1.5 million children between the ages of six to 12, more than 180,000 children were diagnosed as obese, while 250,000 others were found to be very short and this was likely to cause health-related problems, including slow learning and low immunity. The cause of this, the study stated, was a result of poor nutritional habits, especially inadequate vegetable intake, and the over-consumption of snacks and sugary drinks, compounded with the lack of exercise.

Tall or short, although it is all about perspective, these days a number of parents — and sometimes children too — regard body height as a steppingstone to future success. Certain career requirements are one thing. Self-confidence is another. Therefore a few centimetres in height could also mean another few centimetres closer to becoming a star.

But when compared to children in other Asian countries, Dr Juthamas said Thai parents should not be overanxious about their kids' height. In reality, the height of Thai children is not below average, partly due to a modern approach to child upbringing.

"Modern parents are very active these days in encouraging their children to be engaged in activities like regular exercise and drinking lots of milk, which consequently leads to Thai children being not too small in size," added the specialist. "Even so, a number of parents feel the need to visit a specialist for consultation to see how they can make their kids taller."

The average height of Thai children between the ages of eight to nine is approximately 128cm, 12 to 13 is 146cm and 14 to 15 is 155cm. And according to Dr Juthamas, genetics plays the most important role in a person's height.

"Genetic factors are responsible for 70% of the human body height, meaning the height of the parents has a direct impact on how tall a child will be. You may put together the height of the father and mother, divide by two and you may get an estimate of how tall a child can be," she explained.

Other factors are found to be responsible for a child's height, including diet, exercise and sleeping habits. If a child, for example, has an adequate amount of protein and calcium intake, exercises regularly and has enough quality sleep at night, it is likely that he/she will grow to reach the standard height.

"Apart from exercise, having enough sleep at night is of paramount significance for a child's physical growth and development," she added. "Generally, the release of the human growth hormone is highest when from around midnight to 5am. And the body starts producing the hormone around 90 minutes after we fall asleep. It is advisable that a child go to bed no later than 10.30pm. "

On average, a child will grow 1-2cm taller every year. Girls will stop growing when they are 17 years old and boys about 19. Unfortunately, a number of kids do not reach standard height due to several reasons — apart from genetics — including gastrointestinal problems resulting in poor nutrient absorption or certain diseases, especially those associating with endocrine glands.

And this is where acupuncture comes into play as a means to increase body height. Height growth is possible as long as the long bones in the body are not fused. Even after a majority of the long bones are fused, there is still opportunity to tap a few more centimetres from the upper body since the vertebral column of the body consists of elastic cartilage, which is capable of further growth. According to traditional Chinese medicine expert, Juthamas, the ability of the body to release growth hormone affects the buildup of cartilage.

Although growth hormones and cartilage are not directly associated, they have some sort of connections — growth hormone stimulates the liver to produce IGF-1 — a growth factor responsible for body height — and this IGF-1 will enhance the development of cartilage which, in turn, impacts height growth.

"Acupuncture boosts organ function by stimulating trigger points on the head, as well as around the joints. Acupuncture points on the head stimulate the pituitary gland resulting in the production of growth hormones. Acupuncture points around the joints are also to help enhance blood circulation around the area which leads to joint and bone strength," the acupuncturist said.

During treatment, designated trigger points are punctured with thin metal needles, which are manually manipulated, meaning the entire process does not involve electrical stimulation. One course of treatment takes approximately three months — two acupuncture sessions per week. Each session takes around 20 to 30 minutes.

Patient will be assessed once the first course is complete to see if he/she needs more treatments. Although side effects are very rare, the effectiveness of the treatment does vary according to each individual patient.

"After acupuncture, how much taller a child can grow is one of the most frequently-asked yet difficult questions to answer as it depends on many different factors," said Juthamas. "Some patients become much taller after a short treatment period, while in some cases the increasing height is hardly noticeable. And this can be the case if children come for treatment when they are quite old, say, around 18 to 19 years old because that signifies the closure of the epiphysial growth plates or a termination of adolescent bone growth and development." Ideally children between the ages of 10 to 18 are recommended to undergo the treatment, the specialist added.

After acupuncture, there are certain steps patients are suggested to follow, diet being the first. Protein and calcium from natural sources are essential when it comes to growth. Easily digested proteins such as those from fish, as well as calcium-rich diets like milk is strongly advisable.

"Chicken should be avoided as hormones, widely used in poultry industry, are likely to destroy human growth hormones," the specialist noted. "Calcium supplements are not necessary. The overconsumption of it can also lead to constipation and affect the ability of the body to absorb other minerals such as magnesium and zinc."

Certain types of exercise enable kids to grow taller especially those involving vertical movements such as rope jumping, high jumping and basketball. Children are recommended to have the aforementioned types of workout for three to five sessions a week, 20 to 30 minutes each session. Nonetheless, jumping is not recommended for those suffering joint-related problems.

"Also it is important to have adequate milk intake, ideally two glasses a day. Having enough, quality sleep at night is also of great importance," she concluded. "And when it comes to children's health, parents can also play a very significant role in encouraging them to have regular activities so that they not only reach the height they desire but also maintain good physical health."

About the author

Writer: Arusa Pisuthipan
Position: Deputy editor of the Life section