What Are Growing Pains?

You’ve probably heard of someone having growing pains as a figurative condition, but you may not know that it’s also possible for children to experience physical growing pains. Some estimates have as many as 25% to 40% of kids – that’s around one in three – experiencing growing pains at some stage in their lives.

The research around the causes of growing pains is not yet established, but there are certainly things parents can do to help their children deal with the symptoms.

Understanding growing pains

The first thing to know if your child has what appear to be growing pains is that they’re probably harmless. While growing pains involve real pain, it’s usually harmless muscular pain and not joint pain. Growing pains don’t usually have any long-term impact, with no damage occurring in your child’s muscles or bones. A check up with imaging, lab tests, and/or physical exams usually won’t reveal anything abnormal.

Growing pains most commonly affect children between the ages of three and five, and those between eight and 11, with both girls and boys being affected. Sometimes teenagers will experience growing pain as well. Kids can experience growing pains for months or even years, but most will outgrow their pains within a few years.

What causes growing pains?

What’s surprising about growing pain is that the cause is unknown, despite the fact that it’s been recorded as affecting children and teens for at least the last two centuries. Some potential causes that have been debunked include: muscle fatigue in active children; biomechanical factors such as flat feet; mental or emotional causes; or broader pain. Other possible causes that are being researched include growth; changing pain thresholds; reduced bone strength; hypermobility (excess flexibility); increasing body weight; and family history of growing pains and arthritis.

Symptoms of growing pains

Symptoms can vary, but the most common symptoms include crampy, achy pains in the legs, usually in the calf, the front of the thigh, or behind the knees. Growing pains include muscular aches in both legs, and the symptoms can come and go. Depending on the child, it can happen every night for a week, just a few times a week, or only once in awhile.

Growing pain can strike at any time of day, but is often worse in the afternoon or evening. The pain can be intense enough to wake a sleeping child. Moving the legs won’t make the pain worse or better, which reflects the fact that growing pains don’t impact the joints. Children who have growing pains aren’t affected by limps and aren’t constrained in terms of playing normally or running. Often the pain is gone by morning.

In some cases, growing pains affect the arms as well as the legs, and some children can experience associated headaches.

Strategies for dealing with growing pains

At this stage, there aren’t many strategies for preventing growing pains in your child, but you can help alleviate the condition with certain strategies.

  • Rest breaks – Make sure your child gets plenty of rest breaks when they’re playing or exercising.
  • Avoiding overstraining – Some kids report an increase in symptoms if they play more sports than usual, so ensure your child isn’t overstraining specific muscle groups. Encourage them to play different sports or to engage different parts of the body in play or exercise.
  • Warm baths and massage – Taking a warm bath and having a massage before bedtime can sooth aching muscles.
  • Pain medication – Over-the-counter pain medication could help with managing intense pain.
  • Heating pads – Heating pads can be applied to the pain area to help soothe the aching.
  • Stretching – Research has shown that stretching might help growing pains resolve themselves more quickly.

When to call your doctor

If you’re sure it’s growing pains, you probably don’t need to consult your paediatrician. The issue is that it can be hard to tell whether it’s another condition. If your child has severe pain, swelling that doesn’t resolve itself, fever, lumps, a limp, dark urine, reddening or increase warmth on the skin, you should contact your doctor, as it could be something more serious or unrelated such as arthritis, infections, or other musculoskeletal issues.

Dealing with growing pains

Growing pains are usually nothing to worry about, but if you’re aware of the condition as a parent, you can support your child with a range of strategies, such as encouraging rest breaks and administering appropriate pain medication.

All information presented on the Herron website is meant for general knowledge and never meant as a diagnosis of prescription. Please always contact your doctor for health related matters.