Are achy legs keeping your child awake at night? They may have growing pains.
Growing pains are cramping, achy muscle pains that some preschoolers and preteens feel in both legs. The pain usually occurs in the late afternoon or evenings. But it may cause your child to wake up in the middle of the night.
Growing pains usually start in early childhood, around age 3 or 4. They tend to strike again in kids aged 8-12.
Causes of Growing Pains
Despite the name “growing pains," there is no firm evidence that growing pains are linked to growth spurts.
Instead, growing pains may simply be muscle aches due to intense childhood activities that can wear your child’s muscles out. These activities include running, jumping, and climbing. Growing pains seem to be more common after a kid has a particularly full day of sports.
Symptoms of Growing Pains
Growing pains are different for everyone. Some kids have a lot of pain, others do not. Most kids do not have pain every day.
Growing pains can come and go. They may be experienced for months or even years. Most kids outgrow growing pains within a few years.
The pain is usually felt in the late afternoon and evening, right before dinner time, and at bedtime. The leg pains may hurt so much that they may wake your child from sleep.
If your child seems perfectly fine in the morning, don’t be quick to think they were faking. Growing pains disappear in the morning. They usually do not interfere with the child’s ability to play sports or be active.
In general, growing pains are felt in both legs, especially in the front of the thighs, back of legs (calves), or behind the knees.
Studies suggest that children who have growing pains may be more sensitive to pain. Children who have growing pains are also more likely to have headaches and abdominal pain.
How Are Growing Pains Diagnosed?
A doctor can usually diagnose growing pains by examining your child and asking questions about their medical history and symptoms. It is important to rule out any other possible causes of the pain before making the diagnosis of growing pains. This is why it is important to see the doctor if you think your child has growing pains or any limb pain.
If your child has growing pains, the doctor will not see anything abnormal during the physical exam. Blood work and X-rays are usually not needed in this case.
How Are Growing Pains Treated?
Treatment of growing pains depends on how much pain your child has. The following things may ease discomfort and help your child feel better:
- Massaging the legs.
- Stretching the leg muscles. This may be difficult for younger kids.
- Placing a warm cloth or heating pad on the sore leg.
- Be careful not to burn the skin and do not use during sleep.
If the pain does not get better, ask your health care provider if it’s OK to give your child an over-the-counter pain medicine, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Ask about the appropriate dose for your child. Never give aspirin to a child. Aspirin use in children has been linked to a life-threatening disease called Reye’s syndrome.
When Should I Call the Doctor?
When deciding whether to call the doctor, it’s important to remember that growing pains are almost always felt in both legs. Pain that is only in one leg may be a sign of a more serious condition. Call your health care provider if this happens.
It’s also important to remember that growing pains affect muscles, not joints. And they do not cause limping or fever.
Call your child’s doctor or nurse if leg pain occurs with the following symptoms. They aren’t symptoms of growing pains, but your doctor will need to examine your child and run tests:
- injury, such as a fall
- loss of appetite
- limping or difficulty walking
- pain in one leg
- red, warm, painful, swollen joints
- weight loss
And of course, call your doctor if you have any other concerns.
- KidsHealth web site: “Growing Pains."
- Palo Alto Medical Foundation web site: “Growing Pains."
- Kliegman, R.M., Behrman, R.E., Jenson, H.B., Stanton, B.F., editors, Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th edition, Saunders Elsevier, 2010.
- Long, S.S., editor, Principles and Practice of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, 3rd edition, Elsevier Churchill Livingstone, 2008.
- Junnila, J.L. American Family Physician, July 15, 2006, vol 74: pp 294-300.