Growing pains are aches, usually in the legs, which are common in children. It is not known what causes growing pains but, despite the name, they are not due to growing. They are not serious, and settle in time of their own accord. Simple pain relief is all that is needed. See a doctor if there is anything unusual to see on the legs, or if the aches cause your child to limp.
What are growing pains?
Growing pains are one cause of recurring discomfort in children. The pains usually occur in the evening or night. The pain can be bad enough to wake a child in the night.
Usually growing pains occur in the legs, particularly:
- In the back of the leg below the knee (the calf).
- At the front of the leg below the knee (the shin).
- Around the ankles.
- At the front of the leg above the knee (the thigh).
Growing pains usually are felt in both legs. They are usually felt in the areas between the joints, rather than in the joints themselves.
What causes growing pains?
It is not known what causes growing pains. They do not seem to be caused by growing, so 'growing pains' is not an accurate term. Various theories about the cause have been tested in studies, but none has been proven. Growing pains are more common in active children. It is possible the pains are due to the effect of lots of activity on muscles and bones. Some research studies have considered whether growing pains might have a relation to vitamin D levels. If a child has low vitamin D levels, vitamin D supplements seem to help with growing pains. Many children with growing pains have normal vitamin D levels however.
Growing pains do not develop into anything serious and do not do the child any harm.
Who has growing pains?
Growing pains usually affect children between the ages of 3 and 12 years. Up to half of all children may experience growing pains at some point, so they are common. Growing pains are more common in active children and in those children with very flexible joints (hypermobility). They may also be more common in children with flat feet.
What are the signs of growing pains?
There are no signs. If there is anything unusual to see in the area of the pain, the cause is not growing pains. In this case you should see a doctor (see below).
What tests are needed?
Usually no tests are needed for growing pains. A doctor can usually diagnose growing pains from your description and by examination. There should be nothing unusual to find on examination of a child with growing pains. Blood tests and X-rays would be normal in a child with growing pains. So there is no need to do these tests unless there are symptoms or signs suggesting other causes.
What is the treatment for growing pains?
Simple pain relief is all that is needed. Some options which may be helpful are:
- Heat pads.
- Firmly rubbing the painful area (massage).
- Reassuring your child that there is nothing seriously wrong.
(Note that aspirin should not be used for children under the age of 16 years.)
There is no evidence showing which treatment works, or works best. So use whichever option(s) seem to be most comforting for your child.
Growing pains settle of their own accord over time. They may last for a few months or even years. They may come and go during this time before settling completely.
When should I see a doctor about growing pains?
See a doctor if your child has:
- Developed a limp.
- Joints which are warm, red or swollen.
- A temperature (fever) with their pains.
- A rash or bruising with their pains.
- Pains in one leg only.
- Pains which carry on in the morning.
- Pains which are very severe and are not eased with the pain relief suggestions above.
- Lost weight or lost their appetite.
If any of these signs are present, there may be another cause other than growing pains. These signs may suggest a more serious cause and need checking by a doctor.
Further reading and references
Goodyear-Smith F, Arroll B; Growing pains. BMJ. 2006 Sep 2333(7566):456-7.
Junnila JL, Cartwright VW; Chronic musculoskeletal pain in children: part I. Initial evaluation. Am Fam Physician. 2006 Jul 174(1):115-22.
Foster H, Boyd D and Jandial S; Growing pains: a practical guide for primary care, Arthritis Research UK, Autumn 2008
Lowe RM, Hashkes PJ; Growing pains: a noninflammatory pain syndrome of early childhood. Nat Clin Pract Rheumatol. 2008 Oct4(10):542-9. doi: 10.1038/ncprheum0903. Epub 2008 Sep 2.
Vehapoglu A, Turel O, Turkmen S, et al; Are Growing Pains Related to Vitamin D Deficiency? Efficacy of Vitamin D Therapy for Resolution of Symptoms. Med Princ Pract. 201524(4):332-8. doi: 10.1159/000431035. Epub 2015 May 27.
Morandi G, Maines E, Piona C, et al; Significant association among growing pains, vitamin D supplementation, and bone mineral status: results from a pilot cohort study. J Bone Miner Metab. 2015 Mar33(2):201-6. doi: 10.1007/s00774-014-0579-5. Epub 2014 Mar 15.