Growing pains are musculoskeletal pain that can occur in childhood. Despite the name, growing pains do not appear to have any connection to the growth process. As such, some doctors refer to them as “benign nocturnal limb pains of childhood.”
Although they can be painful and disruptive, growing pains do not usually cause any long-term physical problems for children who experience them.
This article describes growing pains, how they feel, and how long they tend to last. We also give some home remedies that might help alleviate growing pains.
Growing pains are a kind of musculoskeletal pain. The pain may affect the following parts of the body:
Growing pains most often occur in the legs, although they can also affect the arms. The pain tends to flare up at consistent times, such as:
- in the late afternoon
- during sleep
- after periods of intense activity
The frequency of growing pains varies. Some children experience them daily. However, most have them only once or twice a week and tend to be pain-free between bouts.
An older review from 2007 notes that growing pains may affect up to 37% of children.
Some children who experience growing pains will report only a mild level of discomfort. For others, the pain may be severe. Children can describe the pain as:
Growing pains most often occur in the legs but can also affect the arms. Around two-thirds of children who experience growing pains report that the pain occurs in one of the following areas:
- the shins
- the calves
- the pit of the knee
- the thighs
The pain usually affects tissues on both sides of the body, such as both shins.
Doctors and researchers have not yet identified a definitive cause of growing pains. However, researchers continue to study a number of factors that may play a role.
One potential cause may be low levels of vitamin D.
A 2015 study investigated whether a 3-month course of vitamin D supplements eased growing pains in children deficient in the vitamin. Researchers found that pain levels decreased after children took the supplement.
Other potential causes for growing pains include:
- a lower pain threshold
- overpronation, or a tendency to walk on the inner edges of the feet
- psychological or emotional issues, such as nervousness and irritability
Certain children may be at increased risk of experiencing growing pains. They include children who:
- are particularly flexible
- have a family history of restless leg syndrome
- have a metabolic muscle disorder, but these are rare
An individual bout of growing pains can last anywhere between 30 minutes to 2 hours.
Most children who have growing pains usually stop experiencing them by the time they are 12 years old.
Teenagers and adults who have ongoing pain in their limbs most likely do not have growing pains. Their pain is more likely due to another cause (see below).
Most of the time, growing pains do not require professional medical treatment. Below are some home remedies that a person can use to alleviate a child’s symptoms:
- Reassurance: Pain is upsetting to people of any age. Parents and carers should try reassuring the child that there is nothing seriously wrong with them and that the pain will pass. This should help the child to feel better physically and emotionally.
- Massage: Simply rubbing the affected area can help to soothe the pain and give comfort.
- Stretching: Muscle stretches increase muscle flexibility, and this may help to alleviate pain. Pairing the stretches with deep breathing exercises may increase the benefits.
- Heat pads and warm baths: Applying gentle heat to the affected area can help to relax the muscles and alleviate pain. A warm bath may also help to relax the muscles.
- Painkillers: Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, can alleviate aches and pains. The dosage will vary according to the age and weight of the child. A person should talk to their doctor or pharmacist to establish the correct dosage.
Certain conditions may cause symptoms that mimic those of growing pains.
Overexercising can lead to muscle strain and similar pains. Such injuries may affect young athletes and children who participate in a lot of sports.
Children who experience overuse injuries should take time off from physical activities. If the symptoms persist despite rest and home treatments, the parent or carer should take the child to see a doctor for further evaluation.
The term “shin splints” refers to pain and inflammation of the bone, muscles, and tendons along the inner edge of the shinbone.
The condition is frequently brought on by sudden increases in physical activity, such as running. The pain typically worsens with exercise.
Juvenile idiopathic arthritis
Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) is a type of arthritis that can develop in children under 16 years of age. It is a rare disease, affecting between 4–16 children out of every 10,000.
JIA occurs when the body’s immune system begins attacking tissues that line and cushion the joints. This process leads to joint inflammation and pain.
Some common symptoms of JIA include:
- joint pain or stiffness, which may worsen after waking up or staying in one position too long
- joints that are red, swollen, or tender
- skin rash
- blurred vision
- dry or gritty eyes
- appetite loss
Certain bone cancers can develop during childhood and adolescence when bones are rapidly growing.
The most common type of bone cancer is osteosarcoma. The disease accounts for around 2% of childhood cancers.
Some potential signs and symptoms of osteosarcoma include:
- arm or leg pain, worsening after exercise or at night
- a lump or swelling in the affected area
- a bone fracture in the affected area
- walking with a limp
With proper diagnosis and treatment, most children with osteosarcoma recover from the disease.
In most cases, growing pains do not require professional medical treatment. However, a person should take a child to see a doctor if the child shows any of the following signs and symptoms:
- persistent pain in the same part of the body
- an area that is sensitive to touch after the pain bout fades
- redness of the affected area
- skin rash
- swollen joints
- limited range of motion
- stiffness in the morning
- pain affecting only one side of the body
- lack of appetite
Growing pains are a type of musculoskeletal pain that is relatively common among children. Scientists have not yet identified the definitive cause of growing pains. However, certain factors may play a role, including vitamin D deficiency, problems with posture and gait, and increased pain sensitivity.
Growing pains usually disappear before children reach their teenage years. In the meantime, parents can use home remedies to help alleviate the pain and reassurance to calm and comfort the child.
Sometimes, limb pain may be a sign of a more serious underlying medical condition. A child who experiences persistent pain or other worrying symptoms should see a doctor as soon as possible.