It’s been said that growing up is hard to do but for some children, it can be a real pain—literally. Children, typically between the ages of 3 and 12, will commonly complain about muscle and joint pains as they grow, but you may be surprised to learn that growing isn’t actually the cause of what we all think of as “growing pains.”
“The rate of growth is too slow to cause actual pain, even at times when growth is rapid,” said Jennifer Nelson, DO, an internal medicine-pediatrics specialist at Banner – University Medicine Internal Medicine Clinic in Phoenix, AZ. “While the actual cause of growing pains is unknown, it is suspected to be related to muscle soreness from overexertion while having fun during the day. When they’re jumping, running and climbing all day, it can really tire out their muscles.”
By your child’s tween and teen years, growing pains typically stop, but it’s not unusual for them to continue through adolescence. Read on to learn more about symptoms, treatment options and other potential causes you shouldn’t ignore.
Symptoms of growing pains
If your child has growing pains, they might complain of aches and pains in their legs—in the thighs, calves, back of the knees and shins. “The pains can occur in the arms and other parts of the upper body, but they are usually in conjunction with lower body symptoms,” Dr. Nelson said.
These body aches usually happen in the evening or at night and can sometimes wake your child from their sleep. The good news is that they typically are gone by morning and are rarely bad enough to affect daily activity.
Treating growing pains
While there is no cure-all for growing pains, there are some things you can do to help ease your child’s aches and pains. Dr. Nelson shared these tips:
- Massage. Gently rub the affected area to soothe and give comfort. This can help you tell the difference between growing pains and something more serious. If your child winces in pain or won’t let you touch them because it’s too painful, you’ll definitely want to check in with their health care provider (we’ll discuss abnormal symptoms to look out for in a minute).
- Take an OTC pain reliever like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Never give aspirin to your child due to its association with Reye’s syndrome, a rare but life-threatening disease.
- Apply heat. They can take a soak in a warm bath or use a heating pad or warm compress. Read “Ice vs. Heat” to learn which method is better to treat aches and pains.
- Encourage stretching. For children who are more active, gentle stretching can increase flexibility and help alleviate pain.
- Provide reassurance. There is no data to suggest that children need to stop any regular activity—children are meant to play! Let them know these “growing pains” are normal and encourage them to keep moving. To help alleviate some pain, allow them periods of rest and to participate in a variety of different activities to ensure they use various muscle groups.
When should your child see their doctor?
Your child may have some aches and pains, but it never hurts to let their doctor know about any concerns or worries you and/or your child may have. However, if your child experiences any of the following symptoms, your child should be seen right away by their health care provider:
- Pain in the same area that doesn’t go away—that occurs daily and doesn’t resolve by morning
- An area that is sensitive to touch, is swollen or red
- Pain that only affects one side of the body
- Fever, chills, night sweats, weight loss or dark urine
What if it’s not growing pains?
Leg and arm pain is common in growing children and adolescents, and it’s usually nothing to worry about. But if the pain persists and they experience any of the above symptoms, you should talk to their provider. Certain conditions may cause symptoms that mimic those of growing pains, such as:
- overuse injury, shin splints or stress fracture
- juvenile fibromyalgia
- juvenile idiopathic arthritis
- some pediatric cancers, such as leukemia or osteosarcoma
- metabolic disorders
- muscle disorders
- anxiety and/or depression
“Most often your doctor can assess chronic body aches and pains during a doctor’s visit by taking a thorough history and performing a physical exam,” Dr. Nelson said. “If there are concerning features your doctor might order imaging, such as an X-ray, and lab work to further evaluate.”
While there isn’t anything you can do to prevent the aches and pain of growing up, always see your child’s health care provider to make sure there isn’t another cause for their pain. To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.