Puberty is the period of human development during which physical growth and sexual maturation occurs.

Beginning as early as age eight in girls--and two years later, on average, inboys--the hypothalamus (part of the brain) signals hormonal change that stimulates the pituitary. In turn, the pituitary releases its own hormones calledgonadotrophins that stimulate the gonads and adrenals. From these glands comes a flood of sex hormones androgens and testosterone in the male, estrogens and progestins in the female--that regulate the growth and function ofthe sex organs. It is interesting to note that the gonadotrophins are the same for males and females, but the sex hormones they induce are different.

In the United States, the first sign of puberty occurs on average at age 11 in girls, with menstruation and fertility following about two years later. Boys lag behind by about two years. Puberty may not begin until age 16 in boys and continue in a desultory fashion on past age 20. In contrast to puberty, adolescence is more of a social/cultural term referring to the interval betweenchildhood and adulthood.

Puberty has been divided into five Sexual Maturity Rating (SMR) stages by twodoctors, W. Marshall and J. M. Tanner. These ratings are often referred to as Tanner Stages 1-5. Staging is based on pubic hair growth, on male genital development, and female breast development. Staging helps determine whether development is normal for a given age. Both sexes also grow axillary (arm pit)hair and pimples. Males develop muscle mass, a deeper voice, and facial hair.Females redistribute body fat. Along with the maturing of the sex organs, there is a pronounced growth spurt averaging 3-4 in and culminating in full adult stature. Puberty can be precocious (early) or delayed. It all depends uponthe sex hormones.

Puberty falling outside the age limits considered normal for any given population should prompt a search for the cause. As health and nutrition have improved over the past few generations, there has been a gradual decrease in the average age for the normal onset of puberty.

  • Excess hormone stimulationis the cause for precocious puberty. It can come from the brain in the formof gonadotrophins or from the gonads and adrenals. Overproduction may be caused by functioning tumors or simple overactivity. Brain overproduction can also be the result of brain infections or injury.
  • Likewise, delayed puberty is due to insufficient hormone. If the pituitary output is inadequate, so will be the output from the gonads and adrenals. On the other hand, a normal pituitary will overproduce if it senses there are not enough hormones in the circulation.
  • There are several congenital disorders (polyglandulardeficiency syndromes) that include failure of hormone output. These childrendo not experience normal puberty, but it may be induced by giving them the proper hormones at the proper time.
  • Finally, there are in females abnormalities in hormone production that produce male characteristics--so calledvirilizing syndromes. Should one of these appear during adolescence, it willdisturb the normal progress of puberty. Notice that virilizing requires abnormal hormones in the female, while feminizing results from absent hormones inthe male. Each embryo starts out life as female. Male hormones transform it if they are present.

Delayed or precocious puberty requires measurement of the several hormones involved to determine which are lacking or which are in excess. There are bloodtests for each one. If a tumor is suspected, imaging of the suspect organ needs to be done with x rays, computed tomography scans (CT scans), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Puberty is a period of great stress, both physically and emotionally. The psychological changes and challenges of puberty are made infinitely greater if its timing is off.

If early, the offending gland or tumor may require surgical attention, although there are several drugs now that counteract hormone effects. If delayed, puberty can be stimulated with the correct hormones. Treatment should not be delayed because necessary bone growth is also affected.

Properly administered hormones can restore the normal growth pattern.

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