We’re all familiar with the term “growing pains,” but what exactly are they? Although fairly common in children, it can be hard to pinpoint a specific cause.
Often used to describe childhood aches and pains, the term itself can be confusing, as growing pains have nothing to do with growth. Classic growing pains occur in younger children, up until around age 10. In a typical scenario, a child goes to bed and wakes up an hour or so later crying because of pain in their legs. They may ask to have the area rubbed to make it feel better and eventually they go fall back to sleep. The next morning, they’re fine. They go to school and engage in their usual activities. The next night, the child goes to bed and again wakes up crying in pain. It can be frightening for parents and upsetting for children, especially if it goes on for a couple of weeks. Despite the disruption, growing pains are usually a normal part of childhood and generally not cause for alarm.
While growing pains primarily occur at younger ages, many people also use the term to describe the aches and pains older children and teenagers get from normal activity. They are thought to come from the demands placed on an active child’s muscles throughout the day from playing a sport, running, climbing and jumping. Discomfort is often felt after activities or later in the day, but rarely wakes them up from sleep.
For very active children, some aches and pains are normal, especially if they spend a lot of time playing sports. If a child or teen participates in soccer 12 hours per week or takes ballet lessons and dances 15 hours weekly, some soreness can be expected. If pain arises from excessive athletic activity, we often counsel parents to persuade their kids to listen to their bodies and take a break.
A Sign of Something More Serious
Sometimes growing pains are a sign of something more serious, and parents should be on the lookout for the following symptoms:
- Stiffness, especially upon waking up
- Walking with a limp
- Persistent pain in the same location that starts to interfere with daily activities
A more serious problem can be misdiagnosed as growing pains, and if a child is experiencing persistent pain, it’s a good idea to see an expert. Pain accompanied by fever, a rash or loss of appetite should prompt an immediate visit to the child’s doctor.
At Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS), we’ve seen children with swollen joints and morning stiffness who were told they had growing pains, while they were getting progressively worse over weeks or even months. The nice thing about HSS is that we have all the appropriate specialists to make the right diagnosis, whether it’s a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, a rheumatologist or a sports medicine physician.
When the cause of discomfort is indeed growing pains, the good news is that they eventually go away and do not interfere with growth. In the meantime, parents can help their child feel better with gentle massage and a dose of children’s acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
Dr. Karen Onel cares for children and teens with arthritis and other autoimmune disorders. Her goal is to work with the patient and their family to create a long-term care plan that will lead to improved quality of life.