Growing pains are also called recurrent nocturnal limb pain. Growing pains are a normal, although painful, part of growing up for 25% to 40% of American children. Children most prone to getting growing pains are from 3 to 5 years old and then from 8 to 12 years old. Adults do not usually get growing pains.
Despite folk wisdom, there is no solid evidence that growing pains are caused by growth spurts in children. There is a theory that growing pains are a precursor for restless leg syndrome in adults, but this has not been proven conclusively. Growing pains are most likely just muscle strains caused by an active child.
Throbbing, cramping or aching sore pains are usually located in the legs, ankles, shins, behind the knees and sometimes in the back. Pains often begin in late afternoon or evening and are gone in the morning. Pains can be so bad that a child may not be able to sleep or may wake up in pain from a sound sleep. Pains are usually located in the muscles but not the joints. Any swelling, feeling of heat or reddening of the skin of a child’s joints is not growing pains but something else like Juvenile arthritis.
Since there are many other conditions like Lyme disease that can mimic growing pains it is best to have a child seen by a doctor or pediatrician as soon as possible.
Growing pains tend to occur most often in preschool and school age children. For this reason, they tend to be associated with growth spurts. However, there isn’t actually any evidence to suggest that the aches and pains are caused by growth. Often, they occur in areas of the body which aren’t growing and they don’t seem to be more severe or common during spurts of rapid growth.
Instead, experts believe that growing pains are simply muscular pains caused by overexertion during the day. The pains often occur at night when the child is inactive, and may be worst when the child has done lots of running, climbing or jumping around during the day. These activities may be hard on the young muskoskeletal system, which is why growing pains seem to be most common in young children.
Fortunately, growing pains are treatable with firm massage on the sore areas, using warming heat wraps on the sore spots or use of over the counter painkillers like ibuprofen or naproxen.
Make sure shoes fit snugly in order to prevent growing pains.
WARNING: Do not give aspirin to children since it can put them at risk for developing the serious condition called Reye syndrome.
There is no definitive way to prevent growing pains, but children who get them very frequently could be advised to avoid running, jumping or climbing for long periods. It may also be helpful to practise stretching out the muscles after periods of intense activity to minimize muscle soreness at night.
In many cases, it’s not possible to prevent growing pains, and it may be better to find methods to cope with the discomfort instead. Heat can help to relieve sore muscles, so a hot water bottle or heating pad may reduce pain. A warm bath may also help to soothe muscles.
Sometimes growing pains can be relieved by providing gentle massage of the affected area. Many children also take comfort from being held or cuddled during this process.
If pain cannot be relieved through these methods, provide pain relief instead. Ibuprofen can help to reduce inflammation and pain, while acetaminophen may help with pain alone. Do not give aspirin to children due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome.