Growing Pains: All you need to know

They are the mysterious achy pains that can strike children at any time. So what are growing pains and how can we treat them?

The cast in the US TV show Growing Pains had them. But we aren’t talking about those types of growing pains, served to us by the ups and downs of life. These are the more literal type.
Growing pains are muscular pains usually felt in the legs. They can affect children from three years old and may continue into their teenage years. The pain, which can affect up to 40 per cent of both girls and boys, usually strikes the calves, thighs and knees, and may worsen in the afternoon or evening. It can sometimes wake children from their sleep, but is usually gone by the morning.

Growing pains come and go

Bupa National Medical Director Dr Tim Ross says children grow at varying speeds and when they are in a growth spurt, the speed at which they grow can cause some aches and pains. 

“It is more common in the legs, but can also be felt in the arms and back,” he says. 

The pain may last for hours at a time and can come and go over a period of weeks to a few months. 

Dr Ross says many people think growing pains are caused by the growth of bones but bones actually grow slowly and don’t cause pain. The actual cause of growing pains is not known.

Thankfully growing pains are not harmful, can easily be treated with pain relief medicines, and are usually completely gone by the mid-teenage years.

Symptoms of growing pains

Young children, who may not be able to tell you that they are in pain, will usually clutch their legs, while older children may complain of pain, Dr Ross says. 

“You may notice that they aren’t walking normally and they may say ‘my legs hurt’.” 

However, the pain does not cause any permanent effects, and children can usually continue with their sports and walk and play normally.
sad girl hugging parent

A cuddle and some pain relief

While experts are still unclear as to why we get growing pains, they are harmless and best treated with pain relief and comforting words. 

Here are some treatments for growing pains:
  • Pain relief, such as a dose of paracetamol or ibuprofen (with dose calculated according to your child’s weight), especially at night when your child can’t sleep.
  • A relaxing, hot bath.
  • Heat packs/hot water bottles. These are preferable to heat rubs, which can be painful. 
  • Gentle massages with essential oils.
  • Reassurance and cuddles.
  • Gentle stretching of the muscles may help.

When it's not growing pains

So when should parents see a doctor? 

“Even though growing pains pose no risk, they can be extremely painful and are best treated with pain relief. But if you are concerned that there might be a more serious underlying problem, you should always ask your doctor or health care provider for advice,” Dr Ross says.

“If your child is unwell – for example if they have a fever or are lethargic, or if their legs are sore to touch – it’s always best to get them checked.” 

Dr Ross says symptoms to be wary of include pain that only affects one leg or arm, loss of appetite, rashes, limping, swelling or joint pain.

A doctor may want to check for arthritis, viral infections, knock knees, flat feet, bone breaks (fracture), or a tumour. Other causes of muscular pain could be muscle fatigue after playing sports, or poor posture.

No matter what the case, children are always best comforted with kind words and reassurance. Settling them on the couch with their favourite book or TV show can sometimes be just what the doctor ordered. And don’t forget to make them smile. After all, laughter is often the best medicine. 
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