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Growing Pains: Understanding and Relieving the Aches of Childhood

When a child wakes in the middle of the night with complaints of aches and pains in their legs, the cause is often hard to determine. “Growing pains” is often used to explain this poorly understood phenomenon. However, even if the reason for their middle-of-the-night discomfort is unclear, there are things parents can do to help.

Key takeaways:

Growing pains are common in children between the ages of three and twelve. The pain typically presents as a late-night dull ache or cramp, which affects the child's limbs, but the most common discomfort impacts the legs.

What are growing pains?

So, what exactly are growing pains? A question easier asked than answered. The truth is that there is no one clear definition. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reported they reviewed more than one hundred research studies. However, the researchers often used vague descriptions of growing pains and sometimes even disagreed with each other.

According to the AAP, the most consistent approach between experts is to diagnose growing pains when all these things come together:

  • Pain in the legs, ankles, and feet
  • Pain that typically comes in the evening or at night and goes away by morning
  • Pain happens in both legs
  • Recurring pain
  • A doctor doesn't find any other cause on a physical exam

Do growing pains really hurt?

Experts think that, yes, the pain from growing pains is real. The discomfort feels like cramping or a deep aching in the calves, shins, and thighs. Pain can be very mild, but some children experience it as severe. The aches can last for minutes or hours. Some children experience it daily, but it can also be sporadic, with days, weeks, or months between episodes.

What causes growing pains?

Ironically, growing pains usually do not happen during periods of rapid growth. So, although there seems to be little talk about changing the name, experts agree that growing pains are not growth related.

So, what does cause growing pains? This is another unanswered question, but there are some theories:

  • Physical activity. Some research suggests children have more episodes of growing pains after physical activity.
  • Low vitamin D levels. Vitamin D has an essential role in bone growth, and some experts think that weaker bones may cause growing pains.
  • Joint and bone issues. Some research links growing pains to extra flexible and mobile joints or flat feet.
  • Mental or emotional stress. Some researchers have found that children with high-stress levels may be more likely to feel growing pains.

Most growing pains stop by about 11–12 years of age. Sometimes growing pains are reported by teenagers, but that is uncommon.

How to help kids with growing pains

Understandably, parents want to help their children feel better when they have growing pains. Here are some tips on how parents can help:

  1. Help your child do stretching exercises, especially before bed. Ask your child's healthcare provider for guidance on the best stretches.
  2. Massage your child's legs before bed and during times of discomfort.
  3. Give your child a warm bath before bed to relax and soothe muscles.
  4. Let your child use a heating pad (with supervision).
  5. Talk to your child's healthcare provider to see if they recommend pain-relieving medication such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  6. Follow instructions if your child's healthcare provider has recommended shoe inserts for flat feet.
  7. Reassure your child that growing pains are temporary and will go away eventually.

Although not well understood, growing pains can be a worry and a sleep disruptor for children and their parents. Try the tips above to help relieve these aches and pains, and talk to your doctor or healthcare provider if your child is suffering from growing pains.

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