I see a lot of toddlers and school age children in my practice. Lately, a number of parents have asked about growing pains. Are they real? What causes them? Are they a sign of something serious? What can I do to help my child? Here’s a quick review.
What are growing pains?
“Growing pains” are a transient, mild to moderate pain, usually affecting the calf, shin, or thigh of a child. The pain most commonly occurs at night, sometimes awakening the child. It last minutes to hours, and usually resolves by morning. Growing pains most commonly occur in children between the ages of 3 and 12 years of age.
It turns out that growing pains are indeed real, but may or may not be actually related to growing. What we call “growing pains” are actually probably multifactorial. In some cases they may be caused by intense exercise or activity during the the previous day. Other postulated causes are anatomic in nature, such as flat-feet or hypermobile joints, although this is still up for debate. In still other cases, muscle cramps or restless legs may be the true cause of pain.
How are growing pains diagnosed?
If your child has occasional nighttime leg pain that resolves by morning and does not interfere with walking or playing, it is most likely growing pains. You may wish to discuss with your child’s physician, but there is generally no need for laboratory tests or x-rays to diagnose the condition.
How are growing pains treated?
Once you are confident that your child has growing pains, they are relatively easy to treat. Gentle massage and helping your child stretch and flex the affected area have been shown to be the most helpful. If the pain lasts more than a few minutes, you may consider ibuprofen or acetaminophen for relief. If your child has significant tenderness with even light touch, or does not respond to these measures, talk to your child’s doctor.
Will growing pains get better?
Although growing pains may be the cause of a few night awakenings, the good news is that they generally resolve over time and are not a sign of a more serious condition. In one small series, the vast majority of children had complete resolution of symptoms by early adolescence.
What are the signs that it is not growing pains?
If the pain seems to persist, your child has joint pain or swelling, fever, rash, or a limp, these symptoms/signs are not consistent with growing pains. You should consult with your child’s health provider to consider further evaluation. If the pain is the result of an injury, or is severe enough to interfere with your child’s daily life, these are also signs it is time to make an appointment to be seen.
This is the first in what I hope will become a new series of posts inspired by questions from parents in clinic. I figure that if a lot of my patients’ parents are asking about it, there are probably others out there wondering as well. For all posts in this series, cases will remain general or details changed in order to protect the confidentiality of my patients and their families.