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What Exactly Are Growing Pains?

January 04, 2021

For parents, “growing pains” can be a sore subject, literally and figuratively. Growing pains are the most common type of limb pain in children and occur in both boys and girls. The condition can be very painful, but fortunately, it isn’t dangerous. But what exactly are they and what can you do about them? 

The term “growing pains” refers to a benign pattern of pain in the limbs. This pain usually occurs in children aged 2 to 12 and is typically not serious. Between ten and thirty-five percent of children will have these pains at least once. People commonly assume that growing pains are caused by bones stretching, but even during a growth spurt bones grow really slowly, too slowly to cause pain. The name was given in the 1930s to 1940s when the pains were thought to be from faster growth of the bones when compared to the growth of the tendons. We know today that this is not true, but the name has remained.

Growing pains vary from child to child and not all children will have them. Sometimes growing pains last just a few minutes, other times they last a few hours. The pain may be mild, or it may be severe. However, if your child does have them, the pain may occur every day, but usually only happens intermittently. Children with severe cases may feel pain every day.

The pains are often described as an ache or throb in the legs, often in the front of the thighs, the calves or behind the knees. The pain can be in the arms, although that is less common. Growing pains often strike in the late afternoon or early evening and disappear by morning. The duration of the pain is usually between ten and thirty minutes, although it might range from minutes to hours. 

Parents may notice the child holding or rubbing their legs, or they may seem grumpier than normal. The pain tends to affect both legs and may even wake a child from sleep. Some children may also experience abdominal pain or headaches during episodes of growing pains. Growing pains shouldn’t make it hard to walk, run or play normally, and won’t cause a limp. The pain will rarely be in the joint itself, and the joint should look normal. 

The most likely cause of growing pains is muscle pain caused by overuse during the day. This overuse can come from normal childhood activity, such as running around and playing games, which can be hard on muscles. Parents often report that they can predict when the pain will occur, often on days of increased physical activity or when the child is tired and grumpy. One study found that children with these pains have less bone strength than the normal population. 

Diagnosing growing pains is a matter of ruling out other conditions and there is no specific treatment. A warm bath or warm heat pack, gentle stretching and massages can relieve the soreness and, at the same time, increase flexibility. Heel lifts and arch supports are short-term tools that may also provide adequate relief from pain. Medication such as ibuprofen may also be helpful, just be sure not to give children aspirin. If growing pains often wake your child, try a longer-lasting pain reliever, such as naproxen. 

When a child experiences pain in the limbs, this may not always be symptoms of growing pain. Parents should take notice of indicators that their children may not be well. For instance, any swelling of the joints needs medical attention. The same goes for excessive heat, pain in just one of the legs, redness, excessive pain in the back or arms, loss of appetite, weight loss or fever. A child who has severe and repetitive growing pains will need medical attention as well.

The good news is that, while there is no known way to prevent or avoid growing pains, they usually aren’t serious and are a common part of childhood for many children. In the meantime, though, knowing how to comfort your child when they’re in pain can make the period pass more easily. 

If there is any question about your child’s growing pains, make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician. Need a pediatrician? Find one here.