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Are Growing Pains Real?

19 January 2023

As a child, if you ever experienced aches and pains in your legs after a day of playing, there is a good chance your parents or grandparents simply chalked it up to growing pains. Does this outdated expression have any medical credibility, though? We will explore the truth about growing pains, what this phrase actually means and how to treat the associated pain and discomfort.

What are growing pains?

Growing pains is a colloquial term used to describe musculoskeletal pain, usually muscular pain in the legs, that children experience. Medically, growing pains are sometimes referred to as benign idiopathic nocturnal limb pains of childhood or recurrent limb pains of childhood.

The following areas may be affected by growing pains:

  • Back of the knees
  • Calves
  • Shins
  • Thighs

Anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of children can experience growing pains. Although they can linger into teenage years, growing pains are most common in children ages 3 to 12. The aches and pains can be more common in girls.

It’s unclear what exactly causes growing pains, but children with hypermobility (unusually large range of motion in joints) or flat feet can experience pain more than others. Growing pains can run in the family, too. There have also been some studies tying low vitamin D levels to decreased bone strength that leads to more aches and pains. Some children experience more notable episodes of growing pains because they may have a lower pain threshold.

Are growing pains real?

Yes, growing pains are real, but not for the reasons you may think. The problem with the phrase “growing pains” is that it implies the pain is associated with growing. However, that is not the case. 

The term “growing pains” dates back to the 1800s when it was first coined by a French doctor to describe joint and limb aches and pains. At the time, doctors believed the pains were due to growth spurts, a theory that was later debunked. 

Growth spurts are rapid, intense periods of development that mostly occur in babies. Children may get fussy during a growth spurt, but they don’t experience limb pain. Bones grow too slowly, even during a growth spurt, to cause issues in children. Therefore, the use of growing pains is outdated.

Instead, growing pains are usually just aches and pains from children being active – running, jumping and climbing on things. This can temporarily wear their muscles down and cause discomfort.

While growing pains are uncomfortable and cause pain, the good news is they aren’t tied to any chronic damage or other long-term issues. It may still be scary for parents to see or disruptive to nighttime routines, but it isn’t a cause for alarm.

What do growing pains feel like?

Growing pains can vary in each child, but most kids feel some type of discomfort in the form of a deep cramp or aching pain in both legs. Some children can experience sharp, shooting pain, while others describe the pain as more dull and nagging. The aches and pains can be mild and last just a minute or two, or they can be severe and last hours.
Growing pains tend to come and go. A child may experience it for a few days then not notice it again for weeks or months. Conversely, some children deal with it every day for several weeks or months. Children typically grow out of these pains within a year or two.

The associated pain doesn’t appear when children are playing during the day. Instead, it usually manifests later in the day or at night when the muscles have a chance to relax, especially when sleeping. So while growing pains won’t impact your child at home or school during the day, it can make bedtime difficult.

How do you know if your child is experiencing growing pains? You may notice them clutching at their leg or attempting to massage it. Although it won’t affect how they play, they may complain of standing for too long if it’s later in the day.

How to relieve growing pains in the legs

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment to ease growing pains, but children may benefit from massaging the area affected or stretching their leg. A heating pad can also help to soothe achy muscles. If that doesn’t alleviate the issue, you can offer an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that block the chemicals that cause inflammation. When your child plays, have them take breaks to prevent overexerting their muscles. 

If the growing pains persist, physical therapy is an option to strengthen loose joints. Orthotics can also help children who have flat feet. Foot orthotics fit inside the shoe to realign foot positioning to prevent knee or leg pain.

Call your child's doctor if the pain is limited to a single joint or if it causes limping. Neither of these symptoms are associated with growing pains and, instead, could indicate more serious issues such as juvenile idiopathic arthritis or toxic synovitis. 

Juvenile arthritis, also called childhood arthritis, is an autoimmune disease that causes swelling around the joints, skin or other organs. Toxic synovitis is an acute inflammatory condition that causes stiffness in the hip joint.

You should also notify a doctor if the pain persists during the day, if the affected areas become swollen or red or if the pain produces secondary symptoms such as fever or weight loss.


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