Children often complain of joint or leg pains. Usually, these are muscular “growing pains” that go away on their own. However, joint pain can sometimes indicate something more serious, such as juvenile idiopathic arthritis.

Other possible causes of joint pain include:

In this article, we look at common causes of muscle and joint pain in children and what to do if they happen.

Research suggests that over 30% of school children experience chronic musculoskeletal pain. Often, there is no identifiable reason, but sometimes they can be a sign of a more serious underlying condition.

‘Growing pains’

Growing pains are a common cause of leg pain in children. They are not joint pains but muscle aches that occur in the legs, often in the evening or at night. They are not harmful but can be very painful.

Growing pains usually occur during preschool and preteen years and disappear around the age of 12 years. These pains are harmless and are not a sign of a serious condition.

People previously thought that growing pains resulted from the bones growing during growth spurts. However, doctors no longer believe this to be the case, as there is no evidence that growth causes pain.

They are more common in children who practice sports or are physically active. This suggests that these aches may result from activities during the day. They are also more likely to affect those with flexible joints.

Symptoms

Characteristics of growing pains may include the following:

  • They occur in the evening or night and typically resolve by morning.
  • There is aching and throbbing in both legs.
  • Pain affects the muscles but not the joints.

Can adults have growing pains?

Juvenile idiopathic arthritis

If a child has frequent or persistent joint pain, then juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) may be the cause. It is an inflammatory disease where the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue, leading to inflammation.

Doctors do not know exactly why it occurs, but genetic factors or exposure to a virus or bacteria may contribute to the condition.

Symptoms

There are different types of JIA that come with varying symptoms.

Possible symptoms include:

  • pain and swelling in one or more joints
  • joint pain or stiffness that worsens after waking or spending time in one position
  • redness, swelling, tenderness, or pain in joints
  • fatigue
  • eyes that feel blurry or gritty
  • rash
  • low appetite
  • fever

For a diagnosis of JIA, a child must be aged under 16 years and have experienced inflammation in one or more joints for 6 weeks or more.

Early diagnosis and treatment are vital because JIA, which doctors previously called juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, can affect bone growth and lead to permanent complications.

Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis can also cause joint pain in children. Learn more.

Lupus

Systemic lupus erythematosus, or lupus, is an autoimmune disorder that can affect nearly every organ in the body. Lupus is rare in younger children but becomes more common in the teenage years, especially in females. Around 20% of people with lupus receive a diagnosis in childhood.

Lupus causes many different symptoms, including:

  • a malar rash, a flat or raised rash on or around the nose
  • other rashes, for example, after sun exposure
  • tiredness that continues after resting
  • pain, swelling, or stiffness in two or more joints
  • pain in the chest area
  • fever
  • hair loss
  • canker sores in the mouth or throat

Lupus is a long-term condition, and symptoms can range in their severity. However, early diagnosis and treatment can improve a person’s outlook.

Lyme disease

Insects called ticks can spread a bacterial infection known as Lyme disease. The ticks carry a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi that they can pass onto people when they bite them. The ticks live in grassy areas and woodlands and feed on animals, such as mice and deer.

Symptoms

Symptoms of Lyme disease include:

  • joint or muscle pain
  • a circular rash around a tick bite, sometimes known as a bullseye rash
  • fatigue
  • fever or chills
  • facial paralysis or drooping on one side of the face

To prevent Lyme disease, children should wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Parents or caregivers can also check the child’s whole body for tick bites after playing outdoors.

Early diagnosis and treatment of this condition can help prevent severe complications, including joints, heart, and nerve problems.

Leukemia

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood that starts inside the bone marrow. It is the most common type of cancer in children.

The symptoms and their severity vary according to the type of leukemia and include:

  • joint and bone pain
  • fever
  • easy bruising or bleeding
  • nose bleeds and bleeding gums
  • swelling in the abdomen
  • low appetite and weight loss
  • swollen lymph nodes, for example, in the neck or underarms
  • coughing
  • difficulty breathing
  • swelling in the arms and face
  • headaches and vomiting
  • rashes
  • gum problems
  • weakness and fatigue

Survival rates for leukemia depend on the type of the disease. For children with acute lymphocytic leukemia, there is a 90% chance that they will live at least another 5 years after diagnosis.

Learn more about childhood leukemia.

Other causes

Aches and pains in children may also stem from other factors, such as:

Treatment for joint pain will depend on the cause.

  • JIA: A doctor will likely prescribe medication to show or stop inflammation. Lifestyle measures and home remedies can also help manage symptoms.
  • Lupus: A doctor may prescribe drugs to reduce or prevent inflammation and treatments specific to the organs that the disease affects. They will also make recommendations about diet, exercise, and other options.
  • Lyme disease: Treatment for children will usually involve a course of antibiotics lasting 10–21 days.
  • Leukemia: Treatment will depend on the type of leukemia and other factors. It may include surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

The following home remedies can help ease the discomfort of joint and muscle aches and pains in children:

  • Checking their footwear: Ensure children wear supportive shoes, such as trainers, when they are out.
  • Giving massages: Gently massaging or rubbing the affected area can help manage discomfort.
  • Applying warmth: Having a warm bath or applying a heating pad or hot water bottle to the affected area may help. Make sure these are not too hot and take care to protect the child’s skin from burning. Children should not use these items during sleep. Bathing in warm water, especially before bedtime, can help reduce aches and pains and promote sleep.
  • Offering pain relief medication: Occasional use of over-the-counter medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can help relieve aches and pains. However, aspirin is not suitable for children aged under 16 years. Doctors have linked it with a rare but serious condition called Reye’s syndrome.

Growing pains are a common cause of leg pains in children and usually disappear with age.

However, someone should seek medical advice if the following symptoms occur:

  • pain in one leg only
  • pain that continues overnight and into another day
  • pain that affects the child’s walking
  • pain in one or more joints
  • swollen, red, or tender joints
  • a recent injury
  • limping or trouble walking
  • fever
  • weight loss
  • a rash
  • loss of appetite
  • fatigue or weakness

The doctor will conduct a physical exam and may carry out tests to rule out more serious underlying causes.

Here are some common questions about childhood aches and pains.

What causes body pains in children?

There are many possible causes, ranging from growing pains to JIA. Some are more serious than others.

What is the most common age for growing pains?

Many children may experience growing pains between the ages of 3 and 12 years.

How do I know if my child has growing pains or something more serious?

A parent or caregiver should seek medical advice if the pain persists from one day to another, affects one or more joints, is severe, or there are other symptoms, such as a rash.

Muscle aches and pains are common in children, while some also experience joint pain. Muscle pain usually resolves without medical treatment, but joint pain may suggest a more serious condition.

If a child has pain alongside other symptoms or if there are concerns about the pains, a parent or caregiver should consult a doctor. Some pains may indicate a condition that needs medical intervention.