Although growing pains typically affect children, adults may experience similar pains in their bodies,
Growing pains are a type of musculoskeletal pain that usually affects children. Despite the name, growth does not cause growing pains. In fact, medical experts have not yet identified a definitive cause of growing pains.
Sometimes, the pain may go away with rest and proper hydration. In other instances, the pain may signal an underlying medical condition that requires treatment.
This article outlines some potential causes of growing-type pains in adults, along with their associated treatments. We also provide advice on when to see a doctor.
Growing pains are a type of musculoskeletal pain that primarily affects the legs in children between the ages of 3 and 12. However, according to an older article in the BMJ, adults can experience similar pain.
Despite the name, there is no evidence to suggest that growing pains are associated with growth in muscles, ligaments, or bones.
According to a 2017 review, experts have not identified a definitive cause of growing pains, though some suggest they may have links to a child’s daytime activity levels. This has prompted some doctors to refer to growing pains as “benign nocturnal limb pains of childhood.”
Adults may experience nocturnal limb pains, just as children do. However, just as growth is not a cause of nighttime limb pain in children, it is also not a cause of nighttime limb pain in adults.
In children, doctors often diagnose growing pains by ruling out other conditions.
Some possible signs of an underlying condition include:
- swelling, redness, or warmth in the affected limbs
- frequent and persistent pain in the affected limbs
- limping when walking
- an increased tendency to develop bone fractures
- reduced willingness to be active
In adults, nighttime aches and pains may be due to muscle overexertion or an underlying medical condition.
There are several potential causes of leg pains at night, including:
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks healthy cells. In RA, the immune system mainly attacks tissues that line and cushion the joints. This leads to joint inflammation and tenderness. The pain can occur at night, making it difficult for a person to sleep.
Although there is no cure for RA, medical treatments can help to control the condition. According to the Arthritis Foundation (AF), the goal of such treatment is to:
- reduce inflammation
- alleviate pain and other symptoms
- prevent further injury to the joints and organs
- improve function and wellbeing
- reduce the risk of complications
In addition to medical treatment, the AF recommends the following self-care measures for people living with RA:
- eating a healthful, balanced diet
- managing stress
- staying physically active
- applying heat treatments to soothe stiff joints and aching muscles
- applying cold treatments to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation in affected joints
- taking supplements such as turmeric and omega-3 fish oils to help alleviate morning pain and stiffness
Delayed onset muscle soreness
A person may experience muscle soreness several hours or days after a workout. The medical term for this is delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
DOMS may cause symptoms in addition to muscle soreness. These symptoms include:
- temporary reduction in strength
- swelling of the painful limb
- stiffness in the joints of the affected limb
According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), a person may experience DOMS after strength training or repetitive activities, such as:
- walking downhill
- step aerobics
According to the ACSM, no treatment will speed recovery from DOMS. Instead, a person can try different methods to reduce discomfort while they heal. These methods include:
- resting from the activity that caused the DOMS
- massaging the affected muscles
- applying ice packs to the muscles to reduce inflammation and swelling
- taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen
Restless leg syndrome
Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a nervous system disorder that triggers uncomfortable sensations in the legs. A person who has RLS will experience an uncontrollable urge to move the legs. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), these urges usually worsen at night.
People with RLS may also experience the following:
- a worsening of symptoms when resting for long periods, such as when sitting or lying down
- difficulty staying asleep or falling asleep
- improvement in RLS symptoms when rubbing or moving the legs
According to the Restless Leg Syndrome Foundation (RLSF), RLS affects around 7–8% of people in the United States. Of those affected, about 2–3% experience symptoms that affect their quality of life.
A doctor will only diagnose RLS if they cannot find an alternative cause for a person’s symptoms.
According to the RLSF, there is no cure for the condition. Instead, treatment focuses on relieving the symptoms. Some treatment options may include:
- lifestyle changes, such as:
- taking medications, such as:
- gabapentin enacarbil
As people age, they are more likely to experience leg cramps in the evening. According to Harvard Health, around 50% of adults over 50 experience leg cramps. Of these, approximately 40% experience leg cramps up to 3 times per week, while 5–10% experience them every night.
Certain factors can increase the risk of leg cramps in people of all ages. These include:
The best treatment for leg cramps is prevention. Some ways to help prevent cramps from occurring include:
- drinking plenty of fluids
- wearing comfortable footwear
- stretching during the day and before bed
- applying heat or ice to the muscle as soon as it starts to cramp
Leg cramps can sometimes occur as a side-effect of certain medications, including:
A person should see a doctor if they suspect that their leg cramps may be due to a medication. The doctor may recommend adjusting the dosage or switching to a different medicine. A person should not stop taking a medication unless their doctor tells them to.
Round ligament pain during pregnancy
Round ligament pain (RLP) is a type of pelvic pain that can occur during pregnancy.
Round ligaments are ligaments in the pelvis that attach to and cradle the uterus. As the uterus grows, it causes the ligaments to stretch. This stretching can cause a sharp pain in one or both sides of the pelvis.
There are several potential ways to find relief from RLP, including:
- prenatal massage
- applying heat packs to the pelvic area, or taking a warm bath
- performing gentle stretches and twisting exercises for 5-10 minutes each day while lying on the back
- practicing prenatal yoga
- drinking plenty of fluids
A person should talk to their doctor if they experience night-time limb pain that wakes them up or causes them to have difficulty getting to sleep.
A person should also talk to their doctor if leg pain or cramping occurs alongside other symptoms. This could indicate an underlying medical condition that requires treatment.
Growing pains are a type of musculoskeletal pain that often affects children. Growth is not the culprit for growing pains, but experts have not identified what causes the pain.
Adults may experience pains similar to those of childhood growing pains.
For some people, these pains may be due to delayed onset muscle soreness following a workout. In other cases, they may signal an underlying medical condition.
A person should talk to their doctor if they experience night-time leg pain or cramping, difficulty sleeping, or other symptoms. A doctor will work to diagnose the cause and provide appropriate treatments.