Growing pains are just that – pain children experience as they grow. They occur in children ages 3 to 12, are harmless and do not affect the growth of children who have them. About 10 to 20 percent of growing children get growing pains, and they are somewhat more common in girls.
“Despite the name, growing pains do not occur during the time of most rapid growth, such as the adolescent growth spurt, or at specific sites of growth,” says Sally S. Harris, M.D., a pediatric sports medicine specialist at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.
About one-third of children with growing pains also experience other forms of recurring pain, such as headaches or stomach aches, she says.
Growing pains also have other characteristics:
- The pain usually occurs in legs, especially thighs and calves. It may be in one or both legs, and may vary in location. Growing pains in arms is less common, but may occur in conjunction with leg pain.
- Growing pains do not cause limping. Pain that is confined to a single joint – such as only the right knee – is not typical of growing pains and should be examined by a doctor.
- The pain occurs almost exclusively in the evenings and at night, waking children up from their sleep. Children can usually fall back to sleep after being comforted with a massage, heating pad or after taking a mild non-prescription pain medication. Stretching the large muscle groups of the legs, such as the calves and thighs, can lessen symptoms, but may not be practical for young children.
- Growing pains do not occur consistently during daytime or interfere with usual activities. However, children may complain more frequently in the evenings or nights following days during which they are very active. It’s common for children with growing pains to occasionally complain of pain during long walks or while standing for long periods of time. Sometimes they may even want to be carried.
- Children may experience growing pains for months or years – as frequently as almost every night – but often there are symptom-free intervals of weeks or months. Symptoms may increase and decrease, but usually remain stable with time. Most children outgrow growing pains within several years.
If you want to relieve your child’s pain, you can briefly rub the area, use a heating pad if needed, and be reassuring, Dr. Harris says. But, be sure to “avoid giving medication or focusing undue attention on the issue that may promote attention-getting behaviors.”
A child with growing pains will have normal physical exam results, as well as X-rays and lab tests. But, if any of the following are present, causes other than growing pains should be evaluated:
- Fever, weight loss and other symptoms of general illness
- Pain specific to a single joint
- Pain that worsens with time
- Pain that interferes with usual daytime activities
- Restricted motion, redness, swelling and/or warmth of the affected part