Growing pains explained

Child awake in bed
Aches and pain don’t just happen in your 80s – children can experience strong twinges and throbbings, which can even wake them up at night. Dr. David Shortland explains how to help your child through it.
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What are growing pains?

Nobody really knows what growing pains are, but there are various theories about it. The theory I like is that as bones grow, things get stretched in the process. Some people think it’s due to loose or tight joints, but there isn’t a definite opinion as to which one is right.

Where do growing pains occur?

Growing pains occur on both legs rather than just one. They are around the joint rather than in it, and tend to be concentrated around the calves and lower leg region.

What ages are growing pains at their worst?

Growing pains usually affect children between ages 5-13. Attacks can last a few minutes or hours, and they can recur at any time during this age range. They’ll stop when the child stops growing.

Do all children experience them?

They don’t, but those who do have growing pains when they’re small will get them again as they grow. And, equally, if a child didn’t have growing pains when they were very young, it’s likely that they won’t have problems with them when they’re older.

How are growing pains different from other pains?

Growing pains are related to a physiological process (so, a natural function of the body), and are bilateral rather than unilateral – they will involve both legs rather than just one or the other. Growing pains aren’t considered to be very serious, and there are some easy ways to help children manage the pain.

Why do they hurt so much?

This depends on the mechanism of the pain. Because nobody knows what growing pains are exactly, it is thought that the pain could come from overuse, muscles being strained, or perhaps tendons being stretched. Basically, there is pain because the tissues involved have pain fibres in them.

What can I do to help my child?

Massaging the areas that hurt will help, as will anti-inflammatories such as paracetamol and children’s painkillers. Some children with growing pains see physiotherapists for stretching exercises.

Should I see my GP about them?

It’s almost always worth discussing this with your GP, as it’s not safe to assume that all leg pain will just be growing pains. If there is something else going on, it’s best to find out straight away. GPs are very experienced with this, and children are rarely sent to hospital because of growing pains. Your GP can refer you to a physiotherapist if necessary.

Dr. David Shortland is from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.