Understanding growing pains and what you should do

Shutterstock

If you have children, you may have encountered some mysterious situations where your child wakes up at night crying due to some mysterious pains in his or her legs. You might try to apply a soothing massage, but you also wonder if you should have this checked out by a doctor because you’re uncertain of the cause.

A situation like this is very typical of growing pains. Up to 40 percent of kids have them, and they usually happen during early childhood around the ages of 3 to 5, and they can also occur in the pre-teen years.

Typical symptoms

Growing pains tend to occur in the muscles. The most commonly affected areas are the fronts of the thighs, behind the knees and in the calves. If there is joint pain due to a more serious illness, there is usually redness, swelling or warmth. Kids with growing pains will have normal-looking joints.

Growing pains can wake a child up in the middle of the night, but it’s more common for them to happen during the day or early evening. The pains usually don’t occur every day, and the intensity varies from one child to the next.

Cause

Growing pains are not directly linked to the lengthening of bones during growth. They are more likely to be caused by childhood athletic activities such as running and jumping in the playground.

Diagnosis

Doctors will typically evaluate the pains according to their response to touch. These pains usually lessen when massaged or rubbed. Children with more serious causes for pain will avoid being held or touched because it increases the pain. Doctors diagnose growing pains with a method known as “exclusion.” When other common causes of pain are ruled out, growing pains will end up being the resulting diagnosis.

Children suspected of having growing pains will usually undergo a physical exam, and the doctor will take a medical history. If the doctor suspects any serious abnormalities, he or she may order an X-ray or blood tests to be thorough.

Things you can do

If you think your child is experiencing growing pains, apply some massaging to the affected areas, and have the child perform some light stretches to relax the muscles. A heating pad can ease the muscle tension, and a pain-relief pill such as ibuprofen might be needed if other methods don’t relieve the pain. Don’t give children aspirin because it could cause a serious illness known as Reye syndrome.

If your child’s pain is accompanied by swelling or redness in the joints, you should take him or her to the doctor. Other more serious symptoms to look for are fever, loss of appetite, limping or weakness. Any symptoms that are not typically linked to growing pains need to be evaluated by a physician.

Growing pains are usually not any cause for alarm, but kids can become upset by them. Don’t assume the child is faking the pains if they go away the next day because this commonly occurs in cases of growing pains. Assure your child that their pains are brief and a normal part of growing up.