How Golden Ball winner Lionel Messi overcame growth hormone deficiency to become the best in the world

Blog by: Suryakant Tripathi

Lionel Messi or Leo Messi as he is better known, has long been hailed as the greatest to play the game. And while he did pick up the Golden Ball at the FIFA World Cup 2014, he’ll be haunted by the fact the he was so close to eternal glory. Leading Argentina to the World Cup title would’ve ended any debate about who was the greatest — Messi or Ronaldo? It wasn’t to be, but that takes nothing away from the fact that Lionel Messi is one of the most amazing footballers to grace the game. While his prowess on the football field is definitely awe inspiring, what very few know is that as a child Messi suffered from a condition that threatened to derail his football career.

Messi started playing football at the age of five and was soon recognized as an extremely talented player but, was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency when he was 11. Little Leo was so into the game that even then all he cared about was whether it would stop him from playing football.

The condition that is commonly diagnosed during one’s childhood, growth hormone deficiency is caused due to a malfunctioning pituitary gland – a pea sized organ present in the brain that is responsible for the production of the growth hormone amongst other things. In a statement to The Telegraph, Messi said, ‘When I was 11 years old they discovered that I had a growth hormone deficiency and I had to start a treatment to help me to grow. Every night I had to stick a needle into my legs, night after night after night, every day of the week, and this over a period of three years.

I was so small, they said that when I went onto the pitch, or when I went to school, I was always the smallest of all. It was like this until I finished the treatment and I then started to grow properly’.

So, just to give you a glimpse into the life of the world’s greatest football player, here is all you need to know about the condition.

What is growth hormone deficiency?

This condition is caused due to a deficiency of the growth hormone which is produced by the pituitary gland. This is a pea sized gland, present in the brain and is responsible for the balance of hormones and production of the growth hormone. The growth hormone, as the name suggests, is responsible for the growth of an individual.

What causes it?

The exact causes of this deficiency is not yet known but it has been found that, in children, this deficiency may occur if they have certain skull or facial deformities like a cleft palate or lip. In adults this condition may occur after a traumatic head injury or due to some other co-morbid conditions.

What are the symptoms of this condition?

  • In children, one of the most glaring symptom is the lack of steady and regular growth. This symptom is normally seen in children between the age of two to three years of age.
  • Apart from that there are certain other indicators to look out for, they are;
  • The child will be shorter than other children of his age.
  • While the body of the child will be proportionate, his hands and legs might tend to look a bit chubby.
  • The face of the child will often look much younger than other’s in his age group.
  • As a child reaches adolescence, he may attain puberty late or not at all.

How is the condition diagnosed?

Usually a physical examination of the child along with the study of his growth chart (one that is maintained by a pediatrician) goes a long way in diagnosing this condition. But apart from that simple tests like an X-ray of the hand (this test is important since the bones in the hand can be studied to decipher the age of a person. If this growth does not coincide with the actual age of a person, he could be suffering from growth hormone deficiency), MRI of the skull (to check for any deformities in the pituitary gland) may also be done.

Also certain tests to check for growth factor IGF1 (an insulin-like growth factor which is released when the body produces the growth hormone) and growth factor binding protein 3 (IGFBP3) are done once the doctor weeds out all other reasons for the lack of growth. Apart from that a doctor may also prescribe a stimulation test (this is a test where the amount of growth hormone in the body is checked by stimulating the pituitary gland) and one to check for the levels of growth hormone.

What are the treatment options?

A child diagnosed with the condition will be required to take injections of growth hormone on a daily basis. This is a long-term form of treatment and usually spreads over a period of a few years.

During this time the child should be regularly monitored by his physician to check if the hormone injections are working.

Are there any side-effects of this form of treatment?

Some of the common side-effects a child may experience are headaches, muscle and joint aches, fluid retention and slippage of the hip bones

What is the prognosis of this condition?

Experts suggest that the earlier this condition is detected and treated the better the outcome of the treatment. In most cases the therapy works and children start to grow at a faster rate. That being said, this treatment modality does not work for all children.

What are the effects this condition could have in adulthood?

In adulthood, a child suffering from this deficiency may have weaker bones, especially those of the thighs and might be more prone to fractures.

Is it considered doping?

In the world of sports, taking shots of the growth hormone is considered as doping and the substance is banned. This naturally percolates to Messi’s need to use the hormone. But in a statement to The Telegraph, the doctor who treated him, Diego Schwarsztein, explains. ‘ The growth hormone has been used as a supplement by adults who do not need it, with the objective of gaining a sporting advantage. But you have to differentiate between growth hormone treatment for an adult who doesn’t need it, who is looking for a physical benefit – and they are high doses and can have very negative side-effects – and the treatment of a physical deficiency in a young boy’.