Are growing pains real?
It's a very real but harmless condition that causes aches
If your child is waking up with sore legs, chances are they’re experiencing growing pains – a very real but harmless condition that causes muscular aches and soreness.
Growing pains are a bit of a mystery, shares paediatric doctor Nelu Simonsz, as it’s unknown exactly what causes them, and they are diagnosed when no other possible causes for the pain can be found. “It sounds really vague when you tell a parent that, but unfortunately that’s just the way it is,” she explains.
What are growing pains?
Growing pains are aching sensations that usually affect the legs (though also sometimes arms) and tend to flare up in the evening. The pain, which is muscular rather than joint pain, can be so severe that it wakes children up during the night. It affects boys and girls equally, and is usually seen in kids aged three to five and eight to 11.
What are the symptoms?
Growing pains symptoms are usually felt in the calf, behind the knee and the front thigh, and tend to affect both legs (or arms) at the same time.
“If a child has one-sided pain, it’s unlikely to be growing pains,” explains Nelu, who stresses that the condition is completely benign – though adds that growing pains symptoms can continue for a long time, on and off. “It is a chronic condition – it does last for months and can even last years – but it usually just gradually improves by itself.” Pains usually stop by mid-adolescence.
How are growing pains diagnosed?
Diagnosing growing pains comes down to eliminating other potential causes for the pain, such as arthritis, infection or conditions that affect how the muscles work together, like flat feet.
Another sign of growing pains is the on-and-off nature of the soreness.
“It’s generally up and down,” says Nelu, “whereas other causes of pain tend to be persistent. You could have a few days with no pain, then get pain for few days and then go a week without pain before it comes back for a couple of days.”
If your child is showing growing pains symptoms, Nelu recommends getting them checked by a doctor to make sure there’s nothing else going on, and keeping an eye out for signs there could be more to the mystery aches.
“Some red flags, for example, might be if a child is losing weight when they otherwise shouldn’t be, or having unexplained fevers and night sweats,” she says. “They also shouldn’t have pain in their legs during the day and should be able to move the legs all the time.”
A close up of a child's legs as they jump on a bed
What causes growing pains?
Though they’re called ‘growing’ pains, the condition doesn’t actually affect the most rapid sites of growth, says Nelu. “There isn't a known cause for the benign straightforward growing pains, but there are things that can contribute to or make growing pains symptoms worse – and if you fix those things, the soreness can improve.”
Muscular tiredness due to excessive physical activity can be associated with aching growing pains, and standing, sitting or walking with poor posture can put extra strain on muscles, leading to soreness.
“Kids who play a lot of sport might find it tends to get worse straight afterwards, but after a bit of rest, it gets better. So, fatigue and overuse likely plays into it,” shares Nelu. “Children with postural abnormalities, for example high-arched feed or abnormal gait, tend to get more growing pains as well.”
Some research also suggests that vitamin D deficiency may play a role in growing pains, says Nelu. “Some studies have shown that once kids with low vitamin D were supplemented, the growing pains improved. Vitamin D is important for bones so there must be some sort of link there, but they haven’t quite figured out exactly what it is.”
Some research suggests a link between psychological issues and growing pains, and that stress or unhappiness could trigger the soreness. According to one 2019 meta-analysis, psychological factors also seem to play a strong role in the onset of growing pains, but this isn’t the case for every child.
Treating growing pains
Luckily, growing pain treatment is easy to administer at home.
“Reassurance is the first step,” says Nelu. “When your child wakes up screaming, it can be very scary for children and parents, so just have that reassurance that it will settle.”
Be sure to relay that message to your child, too, letting them know that their legs will be back to normal by morning.
Research suggests that parents lightly massaging the painful areas can be an effective growing pain treatment.
“Gentle massage and heat packs can work really well,” Nelu says. “If parents just sit and give them a bit of a massage on the side of the legs and have a heat pack or a hot water bottle nearby, it can help ease the pain and get them back off to sleep.”
Warm baths can also help provide relief.
If massage and heat aren’t enough, simple pain medication can also help relieve growing pains symptoms, says Nelu.
“Sometimes you do need some pain relief – have some children’s paracetamol and anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen, on hand in case you need them,” she advises.
Treat any underlying cause
If the pain is worse at certain times (for example, after a big day of sport), make sure the child is stretching and warming up/cooling down properly, suggests Nelu. “You might want to see a podiatrist or a physio to get some leg exercises,” she adds, or simply to check their posture and gait.
It could also be worth having their vitamin D levels checked, she says, and supplementing if there’s a deficiency.
And if you have any concerns at all, always speak to your healthcare professional.
Does your child need a helping hand?
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Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.
About Dr Nelu Simonsz
Dr Nelu Simonsz is a paediatric doctor with a passion for educating parents on common health issues that affect kids. She believes that misinformation leads to unnecessary concern that can make parenting harder than it already is – but by sharing credible information in a relatable way, she’s committed to empowering parents. Outside work, Nelu is also passionate about Beyoncé – in fact, she’s so committed to the pop queen she once camped out at the airport to snap a pic with her!
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