The Journal of Pediatrics says that growing pains are prevalent in nearly 37% of kids aged 4-6. (1) Admittedly, statistics for this are wildly different depending on your source but, nevertheless, they all show how growing pains is one of, if not THE most common cause of musculoskeletal pain in children.
But, what exactly is it? How do you know if your child has it? How is it treated? Should you be concerned?
Keep on reading, mom and dad! All of those will be discussed below, starting with what it is and why we call it growing pains.
Why is it called “growing pains”?
When your child complains to you about his/her legs feeling achy especially during the night or late afternoon, that’s probably growing pains. It also feels like cramps and often affects their calves and thighs on both legs.
The pain can sometimes be so intolerable and so sudden that it wakes them up at night. It comes and goes, too.
However, despite what it’s called, there isn’t actually any scientific proof that physical growth causes pain. Furthermore, it’s a misconception that it happens when your child is in his/her peak growing years.
“Growing pains”, therefore, is a misnomer and previous claims about it has since been debunked.
That being said, no one actually knows what exactly growing pains is.
Scientists and doctors still haven’t fully uncovered this mystery but numerous theories have come in.
For one, it could be related to restless leg syndrome. Your child’s legs feel uncomfortable (painful) and therefore have the urge to move.
It might also be because of low pain tolerance and overuse. For some others, the pain might just be regular soreness from an intense day of playing but to your child, it might feel more severe.
Another theory is vitamin D deficiency and its links to lack of bone strength. (2)
Other theories cite psychological causes, hypermobility, and changes in blood flow. (3)
What are the symptoms of growing pains?
The severity, consistency, and length of growing pains is different for every child. Meaning, some kids may experience more pain than others; some might experience it more frequently (possibly even everyday) and some might last for months whereas some might last for years.
The main symptom here is pain that comes in the late afternoon to evening but disappears during the day.
This means that your child will still be able to function and play as they normally would during school hours but they might come home, eat dinner, and suddenly feel pain on their limbs again.
How are growing pains diagnosed?
Growing pains doesn’t actually have any special test to merit a diagnosis. However, your child’s doctor will diagnose growing pains following a thorough physical exam and history.
If the pediatrician doesn’t find anything wrong during the exam, your child’s pain disappears every morning, and has a clear medical history, your doctor may then diagnose growing pains.
How are growing pains treated?
Just as it is with diagnosis, there is no specific treatment for growing pains.
But, there are a few things that have shown to help, including:
- Minimizing activity during the day. Since heavy and relatively intense physical activity during the day is theorized to contribute to your child’s leg pains, consider toning down the daily activities.
- Applying a heating pad to the painful area. Whether it’s on their calves, thighs, or elsewhere, a heating pad will help promote better blood and relaxation which may ultimately reduce pain.
- Gently massaging their muscles. Massage has shown to be an effective pain management technique in musculoskeletal conditions when compared to not having any type of treatment at all. (4)
- Routine stretching before and after activity. Make it a habit for both you and your child to stretch before they head off to school and when they come back. Research suggests that it helps reduce muscle soreness. (5) Although, if your child’s joints are hypermobile, please consult with a physical therapist or doctor first.
- Using medication. Please use pain medication with caution. Better yet, consult with your doctor before giving your child any pills. If all checks out, OTC meds such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen should help.
When should you worry about growing pains?
I strongly recommend visiting your child’s doctor if your child’s symptoms of growing pains exceed that of the usual symptoms. Here are a few examples of what I mean:
- If your child’s pain doesn’t go away in the morning.
- If the severe pain disrupts his/her daily activities.
- If your child is limping.
- If your child’s pain is also accompanied by fever.
- If your child had an injury when the pain started.
- If the painful area is also discolored.
- If the pain is on your kid’s joints and not on their muscles.
- If swelling is also present on the painful area.
Generally speaking, growing pains isn’t anything you or your child should be worried about and they will naturally fix themselves before your child reaches his/her teenage years.
There is also no surgery or specific medicine that’s targeted towards fixing growing pains. So, treatment is mostly symptomatic and conservative.
However, if your child’s aches and pains extend from the evening to their waking hours, please see your doctor as it might be a sign of something more serious.