If you’ve ever mentioned to another parent that your child complains of leg pains in the middle of the night, they may have suggested that, “it’s probably just growing pains.” But what are growing pains and how can you treat them?
The term “growing pains” is often used when a child complains of leg pain — sharp or cramping — that happens over a period of time. The pain is most often felt in the evening or overnight and can cause a child to wake up from sleep.
We don’t know exactly what causes growing pains, but they are what we call a diagnosis of exclusion. Basically, if we rule everything else out and are sure there’s no injury or other medical problem causing the pain, we settle on growing pains. In order to determine this, we must first rule out things like a traumatic injury or arthritis. Growing pains can feel similar to shin splints, but shin splints are a result of an injury caused by overuse and usually hurt when the child is being active. Growing pains, however, have no injury associated with them and can flare up at the end of a day of activity, but don’t usually hurt during the activity itself.
A physical exam by a doctor can help rule everything else out. The doctor will look for swelling and redness around the area that’s in pain and review the child’s history to check for other potential diagnoses. Growing pains typically don’t cause any other problems and your child should have a normal physical exam.
These pains aren’t necessarily associated with periods of rapid growth, but rather can occur anytime throughout childhood. Most often, I’ve seen kids ages 3 to preteens complain of these pains.
Growing pains can last anywhere from a couple weeks to more than a year. They often happen in clusters throughout a week or two and then go away for some time. During those clusters of time when your child is experiencing growing pains, try to avoid extreme activity as that can make the pain worse.
Often, growing pains can go away on their own, but there are some things you can do to help when your child has the pain. Massaging the area that hurts can help, along with applying heat through a heating pad or muscle heat packs you can get at the store. An age-appropriate dosage of acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) can also help alleviate the pain.
Even if growing pains last a long time for your child, don’t worry. They are benign and are not causing any harm to your child outside of the discomfort.
If you suspect your child is experiencing growing pains, you can see a doctor to rule out any injury or other diagnosis. You should definitely see a doctor if the pain is associated with a fever, any redness or swelling, joint pain, or a limitation in activity (if your child is not as playful or active as usual). Symptoms like limping, fatigue or weakness would need an evaluation by a doctor.