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Growing pains in children

Growing pains overview

Children often wake at night complaining of throbbing, aching legs. This common childhood experience has long been referred to as  'growing pains' although it’s not known what causes the discomfort and there is no evidence that growing actually hurts.  

The sore, achy muscles that are typical in growing pains usually occur between the ages of four to 12 years old, and in the evening and night. Although unpleasant, they are usually harmless and go away after time.

Causes of growing pains

There’s no clinical evidence that growing pains are linked to growth spurts. They are often more common after sports, so it’s possible that the muscular pains may be caused by the intense activity of children as they run, jump and climb.

Growing pains are not caused by:

  • Flat feet
  • Growth spurts
  • Deficient diet

Symptoms of growing pains

Every child experiences growing pains in a different way. They are slightly more common in girls than boys. Some children have intense pain, others feel a dull ache.

Growing pains are usually felt in both legs, in the front of the thighs, calves or behind the knees. They are most common during the later hours of the day or may wake your child during the night. Pains often go away by morning so be aware that your child is not faking pain if they seem fine in the morning.

It is very rare that the pain is felt every day and it shouldn’t interfere with normal physical activities.

The discomfort usually comes and goes and may go on for several years, but most children grow out of it in their teens.

Some studies link growing pains to children with a lower pain threshold than normal. Children affected by them often also get headaches or stomach pain.

When to seek medical advice

Growing pains are usually felt in both legs. If only one leg is affected - it may be a sign that something else is going on, so seek medical advice.

Also seek medical advice if growing pains are:

  • Persistent
  • Accompanied by a high temperature
  • Hampering normal activities
  • Causing limping or difficulty walking
  • Accompanied by joint pain
  • Linked with an injury
  • Accompanied by symptoms like swelling, redness, rash, fatigue, weight loss or loss of appetite.

Diagnosing growing pains

If you are concerned, it’s important to seek medical advice - especially to rule out other causes of pain in growing limbs.  Your doctor will usually ask questions about the child’s symptoms and medical history and check their bones and muscles for signs of tenderness. Blood tests or X-rays are not usually necessary.

Treating growing pains

There is no known cure for growing pains, but you can comfort and help ease the discomfort of your child by:

  • Warming the legs with a heating pad or hot water bottle wrapped in a cloth
  • Massage
  • Supportive footwear
  • Gentle stretching of the legs

If the pain isn’t going away, ask your GP or pharmacist if an over-the-counter pain reliever like paracetamol or ibuprofen might help. Never give a child under 16 aspirin as it has been linked to a life-threatening disease called Reye's syndrome in children.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on April 16, 2013

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