4 Causes And Symptoms Of Growing Pains In Children

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Growing pains in kids are cramps or pounding pains in the thighs, shins, calves, or back of the knees (1). They are often seen in children between three and 14 years, mostly in those who are physically quite active and have flexible joints. Although harmless, growing pains in children can be troublesome at times (2).

Read through to understand the causes, symptoms, and treatments for growing pains in children.

Symptoms Of Growing Pains In Children

Muscular pain in the legs is the most common symptom of growing pains in children. The pain may affect both legs, and the child may experience the following additional symptoms (3).

  • The leg pain comes and goes and occurs daily or occasionally.
  • The leg pain may begin in the afternoon, evening, or around bedtime.
  • The leg pain disappears in the morning.
  • The leg pain can be severe and wake up a child from sleep.
  • The leg pain may occasionally affect the muscles of the arms as well.
  • The leg pain may be accompanied by headaches.

Note: Despite what the name suggests, growing pains do not occur due to rapid growth during the growth spurt. Also, the pain affects the child’s muscles and not the joints, and hence, they can bend, walk, run, and play normally.

The intensity and frequency of growing pains vary from one child to another. Some children may experience pain daily, while others may not. Also, some may experience severe pain, while others may not feel much pain.

Causes Of Growing Pains In Children

The exact cause of growing pains is not known. However, experts believe that the following could be the probable reasons for growing pains in children (1) (3).

  1. Muscle tiredness: Indulging in more physical activity than usual may cause muscle aches in some children. However, this isn’t the case with every child, as some children may do a lot of physical activity and still don’t get any pains.
  1. Poor posture: Maintaining proper posture while standing, sitting, and walking is essential. If a child doesn’t maintain posture, it may strain the body muscles and cause aches. Also, children with flat feet and knock knees may often experience muscle cramps or pains.
  1. Low vitamin D levels: Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that the body requires to perform several functions, including calcium absorption. If a child has low vitamin D levels, their bones can weaken, leading to aches and pains.
  1. Emotional issues: Some children may feel aches and pains due to anxiety and stress. However, all those children who have stress don’t get pain and aches.

Besides these, some studies show that children with growing pains have more tender points and a low pain threshold than other children. It indicates that growing pains may be a variant of a non-inflammatory pain syndrome, especially in younger children (4).

Note: Unless growing pains affect a child’s daily functioning, they aren’t a cause for concern. According to the American College of Rheumatology, “Growing pains are the most common cause of musculoskeletal pain in children. Up to 50% of children can experience growing pains (1).”

How Are Growing Pains Diagnosed?

There are no specific tests to diagnose growing pains in children. Generally, the child’s symptoms, medical history, and physical exam help make a diagnosis. Besides, the doctor may ask you how long the child has been experiencing the pains and if the child has pain in one leg or both.

The doctor may order some laboratory or imaging tests, such as an X-ray or MRI, to rule out other health issues. Some of the symptoms that may indicate that your child has issues other than growing pains include (1)

  • Continuous and increasing pain.
  • Pain stays in the same location.
  • Stiff joints in the mornings.
  • Swelling or redness over a specific area.
  • Limping.

A few health conditions that can cause leg pains in children are arthritis, osteomyelitis (bacterial infection),  and Ross River infection (viral infection) (3).

Note: Growing pains can be painful enough to wake a child in the middle of the night, making them feel sleepy the next day. Hence, prompt steps are necessary to help a child manage the pain and have a peaceful sleep.

How To Treat Growing Pains In Children?

Since the cause of growing pains is unknown, the treatment is aimed at providing symptomatic relief to the child. Generally, the treatment course is individualized and may entail treatment modalities, such as (1)(5)

  1. Physical therapy: The doctor may ask you to massage the affected area daily, especially at bedtime, to help the child sleep peacefully. Massaging also helps stretch the muscles and improves strength in children with hypermobility. The doctor may also suggest home remedies, such as
    • Asking the child to take periodic rests between strenuous activities.
    • Applying a hot compress or heating pad to the affected area.
    • Taking a warm bath before bedtime.
    • Wearing supportive shoes during the day.
  1. Over-the-counter (OTC) medications: Some children may feel extreme pain at night, which can affect their sleep. Thus, the doctor may prescribe OTC pain-relieving drugs, such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or naproxen. These medications alleviate inflammation in the joints and muscles, and hence, reduce the pain. Note: Do not give aspirin, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), to children under 16 years unless the doctor suggests (2).
  1. Psychotherapy: Chronic pain can disturb a child’s mental peace and put them under stress. This may cause some children to develop behavioral issues, such as irritability. Hence, a doctor could advise involving such children in counseling sessions to teach them positive pain coping strategies, such as deep breathing, guided imagery, and meditation.

The doctor may recommend orthotics (shoe inserts) for children with leg pains due to flat feet.

When To See A Doctor?

The following signs and symptoms may indicate that your child’s aches aren’t due to growing pains. Instead, they could be due to an infection or injury (2)(5).

  • Extreme pain in both or one leg
  • Persistent pain during the day
  • Pain begins at night and continues to the next day
  • Pain in the joints, such as ankle and knees
  • Bruising, swelling, or rash on the legs that do not improve within 24 hours despite using home remedies, such as cold packs or compresses
  • Reddening or increased warmth in the leg muscles
  • Limping due to severe pain
  • Soreness on one or both legs
  • Fever and feeling of malaise
  • Loss of appetite

Seek your child’s pediatrician promptly if your child has any of these symptoms.

Growing pains in kids are pains or aches in the muscles usually seen in physically active kids and those with flexible joints. The discomfort intensity varies from child to child and may be caused by muscle fatigue from physical exercise, poor body postures, low vitamin D levels, or anxiety or stress. While most children with growing pains do not have any functional or growth concerns, the condition may cause discomfort in some, necessitating medical attention. However, the majority respond well to treatment and grow out of their condition with time.

Key Pointers

  • Muscle tiredness, poor posture, low levels of vitamin D, and emotional issues are the causes of growing pains in children.
  • OTC medicines, physiotherapy, and psychotherapy may help manage this condition.

References:

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Dr. Dur Afshar Agha

(MS)
Dr. Dur Afshar Agha is a consultant pediatrician with decades of experience in various medical facilities both in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. She has headed the Department of Preventive Pediatrics at the prestigious, Children’s Hospital and Institute of Child Health in Pakistan and is a life member of the Pakistan Paediatric Association. She has also completed her Post Graduate Program... more

Swati Patwal

Swati Patwal is a clinical nutritionist and toddler mom with over eight years of experience in diverse fields of nutrition. She started her career as a CSR project coordinator for a healthy eating and active lifestyle project catering to school children. Then she worked as a nutrition faculty and clinical nutrition coach in different organizations. Her interest in scientific writing... more