Does your child complain of pain in their hips, legs, knees, or feet at night? If so, they might be experiencing growing pains. Although the term growing pains has been around since the 1800s, we still know very little about the cause of this uncomfortable childhood ailment. One certain thing is that growing pains are not from growing!
This article further explores this old-fashioned yet elusive condition that affects some children. Read on to familiarize yourself with this common childhood issue.
Are growing pains real?
National Institutes of Health (NIH) reviewed documented evidence on growing pains. In their review, they pointed out a study from Lancet indicating:
The prevalence of growing pains decreased as children became older. Specifically, during the routine examination of 1298 children, 44.4% of 8- to 10-year-olds, 39.8% of 10- to 12-year-olds, and 21.2% of children older than 12 years had growing pains.
The review specifies that children between the ages of 3 and 12 can complain of musculoskeletal pain, indicative of growing pains. However, they will likely outgrow it as they mature.
Although many studies do not include children under the age of 8, it is common for younger children to experience this type of discomfort. In fact, both of my grandsons complained of nighttime pain in their lower limbs at ages 4 and 5.
So what do we know about growing pains? Are growing pains real? Yes, it’s a legitimate medical complaint, but the cause may be different than you think.
What are growing pains in kids?
Growing pains in kids refer to the aching discomfort that affects both lower limbs, especially at night. The pain is intense enough to wake your child up and is typically in the muscles. It is not associated with rapid growth as many would think.
Growing pain is the most common cause of musculoskeletal discomfort in children. When a child presents to the doctor with symptoms, your care provider will often rule out other causes before making a diagnosis of growing pains. Since no blood test or X-ray can help diagnose growing pains, the doctor would make a determination based on elimination and presenting symptoms.
What causes growing pains in kids?
Although the actual cause of growing pains is unknown, some theories exist.
The most common reasons that could contribute to this childhood ailment include:
- Overuse of muscles due to increased physical activity of lower limbs
- Lower pain threshold
- Overly flexible joints (hypermobile) or flat feet
These theories make sense as kids typically are very busy and run, jump, or move all day long. It is no wonder they “overuse” their lower muscles sometimes. Children have endless energy and never seem to know when to stop. Along the same lines, kids with hypermobility can overstretch their muscles when using them. This is because their joints move more due to extra flexibility, pulling the muscles beyond their normal limits. Also, a child with low pain tolerance may notice the discomfort in their legs more keenly.
The case of my two grandsons, who’ve suffered from growing pains, could back up the reasoning behind this condition. Our oldest boy has always been on the move. As a toddler and preschooler, he would run everywhere instead of walking. He had difficulty falling asleep as his body and muscles had trouble “shutting down.” Due to his high activity level, he overused his muscle—most likely the cause of his growing pains.
One of my other grandsons has hypermobile joints and very flat feet. He is a sensory-sensitive child, so environmental stimuli annoy him. He has a lower pain threshold than others. A combination of these factors is perhaps the reason for the growing pains on his hips and feet.
What do growing pains in kids feel like?
Children have described growing pains as vaguely uncomfortable feelings in their lower body, especially in the hips, legs, and feet. Kids may have trouble pinpointing an exact area of discomfort as the pain comes and goes.
Some feel severe growing pains, while others only indicate that it is annoying. Many kids say that they experience cramping or restless leg feelings. However, by morning they are all free of discomfort.
When do growing pains stop?
Growing pains typically stop when a child reaches puberty. However, adults can have this same type of discomfort. This issue is often labeled restless leg syndrome or muscle cramps as an adult.
In the meantime, exploring natural remedies like the ones listed below may be vital in helping your child deal with this uncomfortable issue.
How to relieve growing pains in kids
What helps growing pains? Most growing pains are not serious but can be bothersome and cause sleep disruption for you and your child. Since everyone needs a good night’s rest, finding solutions to nagging leg discomfort can be a blessing.
Doctors do not typically recommend any prescription medicine to relieve growing pain. However, some over-the-counter medication and home remedies may help.
You may want to try the following to ease the discomfort of growing pains:
- A warm bath before bed
- Applying a heating pad to the area of discomfort
- Gentle massage to uncomfortable areas
- Mild stretching to the painful area. (this video gives some ideas for stretches)
- Over-the-counter pain-relieving medication for children
- If your child has hypermobility, discuss physical therapy with your doctor
- For a child with flat feet, orthotics or well-fitted and supportive shoes may help
A few years ago, I took my grandson—who had been plagued with growing pains due to flat feet—to a shoe store specializing in children’s orthotics. As a result of this visit, he became the proud owner of his first pair of well-fitted and supportive sneakers. He remarked that he could run fast and without pain when he had those shoes on. It was a great moment of relief and happiness for both of us!
When to call a doctor
Most parents are not comfortable diagnosing growing pains themselves. Furthermore, your doctor needs to rule out other more serious problems before diagnosing growing pains. So it is advisable to discuss concerns related to your child’s nighttime leg discomfort with your doctor.
Once they confirm that your child’s discomfort is from growing pains, you can rest assured that your child will outgrow it. Also, they will get better with minor home treatment.
However, there are some warning signs that you should alert your physician about:
- An injury accompanies the discomfort.
- Your child complains of pain in a particular small area.
- The problem area is red, swollen, or hot.
- Your child has a fever along with the pain.
- Your child is limping during the day (remember growing pain is an evening and night complaint).
- The pain is severe or persistent or worsening
FAQs about growing pains in kids
Although growing pains are a vague complaint, doctors have ideas about what growing pains are not associated with. We answer and clarify some inaccurate information regarding growing pains in kids in the most commonly asked questions below.
1. Do growing pains happen in one leg and not another?
Typically, growing pains are on both sides.
2. Can growing pains cause a fever?
No. Growing pains do not cause a child to have a temperature. If this occurs, call your doctor as this may be due to another medical issue.
3. Can growing pains cause swelling?
Growing pains do not cause swelling, so don’t hesitate to contact your pediatrician if this occurs. Injury or an inflammatory medical condition such as rheumatoid arthritis will need to be ruled out.
4. Do growing pains make you taller?
Since it has been determined that growing pains are not associated with rapid or any growth in children, this issue will not make them grow taller.
My two grandsons have outgrown their growing pains and no longer complain of nighttime leg, hip, or foot discomfort. At ages 6 and 8, they sleep well through the night without the interruption of pain and restless leg issues. Will their growing pains return? Who knows? So far, the nagging ache has disappeared, and growing pains are a distant memory.