Growing up, you may have heard this common refrain: “Don’t worry, it’s just growing pains.” But what exactly are growing pains? What causes them? Are they serious? How long will they last?

Growing pains are one of the most common childhood musculoskeletal conditions, causing countless visits to health care professionals. Children as young as three and as old as 12 can be affected. The pain can feel like an ache, cramp, or throbbing in both legs, especially in the front of the thighs, calves, or behind the knees. It’s usually felt in the late afternoon, evening, or at bedtime. Some children may wake up during the night because the pain can be so uncomfortable.

Although these symptoms are referred to as “growing pains,” there is no actual evidence to show that growing is painful.

What causes growing pains?

Doctors don’t exactly know what causes growing pains as they don’t cause any visible symptoms such as swelling, rashes, or redness. Children are more likely to experience growing pains after a full day of physical activity, making one possible cause the overuse of muscles throughout the day by running, climbing, and jumping. These activities can be hard on a child’s musculoskeletal system.

Other causes that may lead to growing pains include:

  • Restless leg syndrome – A disorder where uncomfortable feelings in the legs may make it hard to go to sleep, restless legs syndrome runs in families. It can mimic the symptoms of growing pains.
  • Vitamin D deficiency – Vitamin D is important for muscle and bone health, and some research has found low levels of it in children with growing pains.
  • Pain sensitivity – If children are prone to suffer from headaches or belly aches, they may be sensitive to pain and feel growing pains as well.
  • Flexible joints or flat feet – These conditions may also contribute to growing pains.

Growing pains can last for a few months, but some children also experience them for years. The pains come and go, but eventually, children will outgrow them within a few years.

How are growing pains diagnosed?

Your child’s pediatrician can diagnose growing pains without imaging studies or lab tests. A thorough medical history and physical exam are usually all that is needed to make the diagnosis. However, kids with suspected injuries or who are limping should be examined more carefully to determine if there is another cause of the pain. Additional symptoms combined with the symptoms of growing pains can be a sign of a serious problem. Consult your pediatrician if your child’s pain is:

  • Persistent and ongoing
  • Only in one leg
  • Present in the morning
  • Severe enough to interfere with your child’s normal activities
  • Located in the joints (Watch for signs that your child is having pain in the hips, knees, and/or ankles)
  • Accompanied by other symptoms, such as swelling, redness, tenderness, fever, limping, rash, loss of appetite, weakness or fatigue

Here are some typical signs of growing pains:

  • The pain does not result in a limp.
  • Your child can engage in normal playtime during the day.
  • Movement in the legs does not make the pain any better or any worse.

Are there any treatments for growing pains?

Most children who are having growing pains won’t need to see a doctor. However, if the pain is persistent or you see other troubling symptoms, you may want to bring it to the attention of your child’s physician.

There are simple ways that parents can help relieve their child’s discomfort. Treatment for growing pains depends on how much pain your child is experiencing. Here are some tips to help ease discomfort or help prevent your child from experiencing growing pains:

  • Massage the legs gently. This will help alleviate tense muscles. However, some children would rather be held or cuddled.
  • Place a warm cloth or heating pad on sore legs. Heat helps soothe sore muscles. Put a heating pad on a low setting or a warm cloth on your child’s legs before bedtime. Be sure to remove it once your child falls asleep. Having your child take a warm bath before bedtime also can help.
  • Stretch leg muscles. Stretching leg muscles during the day can help prevent pain at night. Speak with your child’s doctor to learn some stretching exercises that can help.
  • Take a pain reliever. If growing pains are severe, ask their doctor about giving your child an over-the-counter medication, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or child ibuprofen (Advil®, Children’s Motrin®). Do NOT give your child aspirin due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome – a rare but serious condition that causes swelling in the liver and brain.

As always, consult your child’s health care provider if you have any additional concerns about growing pains.