Growing pains are often described as an ache or throb in the legs — often in the front of the thighs, the calves or behind the knees. Growing pains tend to affect both legs and occur at night, and may even wake a child from sleep.
Although these pains are called growing pains, there's no evidence that growth hurts. Growing pains may be linked to a lowered pain threshold or, in some cases, to psychological issues.
There's no specific treatment for growing pains. You can make your child more comfortable by putting a warm heating pad on the sore muscles and massaging them.
Growing pains usually cause an aching or throbbing feeling in the legs. This pain often occurs in the front of the thighs, the calves or behind the knees. Usually both legs hurt. Some children may also experience abdominal pain or headaches during episodes of growing pains. The pain doesn't occur every day. It comes and goes.
Growing pains often strike in the late afternoon or early evening and disappear by morning. Sometimes the pain awakens a child in the middle of the night.
When to see a doctor
Consult your child's doctor if you're concerned about your child's leg pain or the pain is:
- Still present in the morning
- Severe enough to interfere with your child's normal activities
- Located in the joints
- Associated with an injury
- Accompanied by other signs or symptoms, such as swelling, redness, tenderness, fever, limping, rash, loss of appetite, weakness or fatigue
The cause of growing pains is unknown. But there's no evidence that a child's growth is painful.
Growing pains don't usually happen where growth is occurring or during times of rapid growth. It's been suggested that growing pains may be linked to restless legs syndrome. But muscle pain at night from overuse during the day is thought to be the most likely cause of growing pains. Overuse from activities such as running, climbing and jumping can be hard on a child's musculoskeletal system.
Growing pains are common in preschool and school-age children. They're slightly more common in girls than in boys. Running, climbing or jumping during the day might increase the risk of leg pain at night.
Doctors can usually diagnose growing pains without having to order any tests. In some cases, though, your doctor may order blood tests or X-rays to help rule out other problems that may be causing your child's signs and symptoms. Not all types of leg pain in children are growing pains. Sometimes leg pain may be caused by underlying conditions that can be treated.
There's no specific treatment for growing pains. The good news is that growing pains don't cause other problems, and they don't affect growth. Growing pains often get better on their own within a year or two. And if they don't go away completely in a year or so, they often become less painful. In the meantime, you can help ease your child's discomfort with self-care measures, such as massaging your child's legs.
Most children who have growing pains will not need to see a doctor. If the pain is persistent or unusual, you may want to bring your concerns to the attention of your family doctor or pediatrician.
What you can do
Before the appointment, you may want to write a list that answers the following questions:
- Where does the pain occur?
- Is there a certain time of day when the pain usually occurs?
- How long does the pain last?
- What, if anything, relieves the pain?
- Does the pain wake your child up at night or make it difficult to fall asleep?
- Has your child experienced any other signs or symptoms — such as swelling, redness, abdominal pain or headaches?
- Has your child recently started a new physical activity?
What to expect from your doctor
During the exam, your doctor may ask questions about your child's symptoms and activities. He or she will check your child's bones and muscles for signs of tenderness.
You can help ease your child's discomfort with these home remedies:
- Rub your child's legs. Children often respond to gentle massage. Others feel better when they're held or cuddled.
- Use a heating pad. Heat can help soothe sore muscles. Use a heating pad on a low setting before bedtime or when your child complains of leg pain. Remove the heating pad once your child falls asleep. A warm bath before bedtime may help, too.
- Try a pain reliever. Offer your child ibuprofen (Advil, Children's Motrin, others) or acetaminophen (Tylenol, others). Avoid aspirin, due to the risk of Reye's syndrome — a rare but serious condition linked to giving aspirin to children.
- Stretching exercises. Stretching the muscles in the legs during the day may help prevent pain at night. Ask your doctor what stretches might help.