You put your 5-year-old to bed after a long busy day of school followed by soccer practice when you hear, “My legs hurt.” When you ask which leg, they say, “Both legs hurt.” When you ask your child to point to the pain, they rub the length of both lower legs. You know that it is not uncommon for kids to have growing pains, but what are these pains exactly and when should a parent be concerned about them?
What are growing pains?
Growing pains are pains in the legs that bother children (usually) in the evening. The pain is usually in both legs and can affect the thighs, calves, or shins. The pain does not affect the joints. They may complain of pain behind their knees. The pain may come and go. Let’s be clear, this type of pain does not generally occur daily. There may be long periods of time between painful episodes. These kids are just fine during the day and do not complain until evening.
What causes growing pains?
No one knows for sure what causes growing pains; however, it is suspected to be the result of a long active day of running, playing, and jumping. It is interesting to learn that the pain is not worse during growth spurts, nor does the pain occur near the growth plates of the bones. It is likely just sore, tired, achy legs after a busy day.
Who does this affect?
This most often affects preschool and school-age children from 3 to 12 years of age. This may occur to boys and girls but is slightly more prevalent in girls.
Although there is no specific treatment for growing pains, massage, heat, and over-the-counter pain medication may be helpful. When applying heat to your child, be careful about the application so as not to burn them. A warm, moist towel may feel good. If you use a heating pad, use a towel between the heating pad and the skin. Do not allow your child to sleep with the heating pad. Soaking in a warm bath (with Epsom salts) may be comforting. Be sure to always supervise your child in the tub. When dosing over-the-counter pain medication for children, always consult your pediatric healthcare provider and dose appropriately for your child’s weight. Stretching before bed may be helpful as well. Growing pains tend to go away on their own in time without any specific treatment.
Will certain foods help?
Although there are no specific foods to treat growing pains, a glass of milk (or almond milk) will provide Vitamin D and calcium which may be helpful. Add a banana and you’ve also got the benefit of magnesium (also found in spinach, avocado, and black beans).
When should I be concerned?
Please be aware that there are some very serious illnesses in which leg pain is the initial symptom that should be immediately evaluated. Pain that is always in one location is more concerning and warrants a visit to your pediatric healthcare provider. Pain that wakes your child from sleep warrants a medical evaluation as does pain that causes a limp. Pain that occurs as a result of an injury also deserves a medical evaluation. Pain during the day, pain that interferes with activity, fever, joint pain, redness, or warmth in the joint are all concerning symptoms that deserve a complete evaluation. Fatigue, weight loss, and weakness should be evaluated as well. Please reach out to your pediatric healthcare provider immediately in these cases, or in any situation where you are concerned.
What will my healthcare provider do?
If you have concerns about your child’s pain, please see your pediatric healthcare provider. Your pediatric healthcare provider will take a complete history and do a thorough examination. Although there are no specific tests which diagnose growing pains, generally a good history and physical examination is all that is needed to determine the diagnosis. If there are more serious concerns that warrant further investigation, your pediatric healthcare provider will consider if x-rays and blood work are needed. He or she will evaluate the symptoms and consider alternative diagnoses. After identifying an appropriate diagnosis, he or she will make an appropriate plan specifically for your child.
Growing pains are a common complaint in children. Being aware of what to expect and how to help your child, as well as when to consult your pediatric healthcare provider will help you feel more comfortable in dealing with this childhood issue.
For more information, visit kidshealth.org/en/parents/growing-pains.html