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Growth plates: what you need to know

August 27, 2013

What are growth plates and why are they so important? Here's what you need to know.

What are growth plates?

Growth plates are zones of cartilage at each end of our long bones (femur, tibia, etc.), explains David E. Attarian, MD, a joint replacement orthopaedic surgeon at Duke. These bones grow by the contribution of new bone from the growth plate.  Because of their soft nature, these parts of the bone are vulnerable to injury during the development of a child. This is a region of the bone that is sometimes weaker than the surrounding tendons and ligaments. As a result, up to 30 percent of fractures in children can occur around the growth plates.

When do growth plates close in people?

It is difficult to predict exactly when each growth plate will close because different bones stop growing at different times, explains Andre C. Grant, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon at Duke Orthopaedics of Raleigh. There is an average time when the growth plates in the long bones should close.

Most children grow an average of two years after they have completed their pubertal growth spurt.

The age at which puberty starts is quite variable depending on many factors including race, gender, and body habitus. On average, females are done growing around age 12 to 14, and boys around age 14 to 16.

Obviously many children continue to gain some height into their late teen years, but the vast majority of growth is over by these ages

How is remaining growth estimated?

Your pediatrician likely has been monitoring your child’s height and weight on growth charts. You can estimate remaining growth based on these charts. 

Orthopaedic surgeons also use different x-ray markers to better estimate the amount of growth a child has remaining, explains Robert Lark, MD, a pediatric spine specialist.  A good rule of thumb is that once a child has reached the end stages of puberty, the growth plates are essentially closed.

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