Your 8-year-old son wakes up crying in the night complaining that his legs are throbbing. You rub them and soothe him as much as you can, but you’re uncertain about whether to give him any medicine or take him to the doctor.
Sound familiar? Your son probably is experiencing growing pains, a normal occurrence in about 25% to 40% of children. They generally strike during two periods: in early childhood among 3- to 5-year-olds and, later, in 8- to 12-year-olds.
Signs and Symptoms
Growing pains always concentrate in the muscles, rather than the joints. Most kids report pains in the front of their thighs, in the calves, or behind the knees. Joints affected by more serious diseases are swollen, red, tender, or warm — the joints of kids having growing pains look normal.
Although growing pains often strike in late afternoon or early evening before bed, pain can sometimes wake a sleeping child. The intensity of the pain varies from child to child, and most kids don’t have the pains every day.
What Causes Them?
Bone growth hasn’t been proved to cause pain. So “growing” pains might just be aches and discomfort from the jumping, climbing, and running that active kids do during the day. The pains can happen after a child has had a particularly athletic day.
Diagnosing Growing Pains
One symptom that doctors find most helpful in making a diagnosis of growing pains is how a child responds to touch while in pain. Kids who have pain from a serious medical cause don’t like to be handled because movement can make the pain worse. But those with growing pains respond differently — they feel better when they’re held, massaged, and cuddled.
Growing pains are what doctors call a diagnosis of exclusion. This means that other conditions will be ruled out before a diagnosis of growing pains is made. This usually is done by taking a medical history and doing a physical exam. In rare instances, blood tests and X-rays might be done before a doctor diagnoses growing pains.
Helping Your Child
Things that may help ease growing pains include:
- massaging the area
- placing a heating pad on the area
- giving ibuprofen or acetaminophen
Do not give aspirin to a child or teen, as it has been linked to a rare but serious illness called Reye syndrome.
When to Call the Doctor
Call your doctor if any of these symptoms occur with your child’s pain:
- long-lasting pain, pain in the morning, or swelling or redness in one particular area or joint
- pain associated with an injury
- unusual rashes
- loss of appetite
- unusual behavior
These signs are not related to growing pains and should be checked out by the doctor.
While growing pains aren’t usually related to illness, they can upset kids — or parents. Because the aches are usually gone in the morning, parents sometimes think that a child faked the pains. But this usually isn’t true. Instead, offer support and reassurance that growing pains will pass as kids grow up.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: July 2012