Growing pains are an aching or throbbing pain, usually in a child’s legs or less commonly in the arms. They’re the most common type of pain in children.
Growing pains usually occur in children between ages 2 and 12, often starting between 3 and 5 years of age. They’re a diagnosis of exclusion, which means they’re diagnosed after other conditions have been ruled out.
Growing pains usually start in late afternoon or early evening and are gone by morning. The pain may be severe enough to wake your child up. They may occur every day, but usually only happen intermittently.
The cause of growing pains is unknown, and bone growth is not actually painful. The most likely cause of growing pains is muscle pain caused by overuse during the day. This overuse can come from normal childhood activity, such as running around and playing games, which can be hard on muscles.
Growing pains are an aching, throbbing pain, usually on both sides of the body, mainly in the legs. The pain comes and goes, usually starting in the late afternoon or evening and gone by the morning. Some children also have headaches or abdominal aches in addition to growing pains.
Growing pains in legs
The shins, calves, back of the knees, and front of the thighs are the most common areas for growing pains.
Growing pains in knees
Growing pains in the knees will usually be behind the knee. The pain will rarely be in the joint itself, and the joint should look normal. If the joint hurts or is red, swollen, or warm, this can be a sign of juvenile idiopathic arthritis.
Growing pains in arm
If your child has growing pains in their arm, it will most likely be in both arms. They’ll usually have leg pain in addition to arm pain.
Growing pains in back
While back pain is a common ailment for both adults and active children, the available literature regarding growing pains does not include pain in the back. Therefore, back pain in children may be a sign of another issue.
It could be poor posture or muscle strain, but it may also be a sign of a more serious underlying disorder, especially if the pain lasts for more than a few days or gets progressively worse. See your doctor if that is the case.
Heat and pain relieving medication such as ibuprofen may also be helpful. Just be sure not to give children aspirin, especially if they are younger or have an acute viral illness, as it can lead to Reye’s syndrome, a rare but serious condition.
If your child is often woken up by growing pains, you can give them a longer-lasting pain reliever, such as naproxen.
Growing pains can start as early as 2 years old. They usually start between ages 3 and 5. Growing pains in toddlers are the same aching and throbbing as in older children.
Your child may wake up in the middle of the night because of the pain. You may notice them holding or rubbing their legs, or they may seem grumpier than normal. Gently massaging your child’s leg can help ease their pain.
Growing pains usually stop by the time a child reaches puberty. However, pains that resemble growing pains can continue into adulthood.
Growing pains themselves are harmless, but the pain may also be a sign of another condition. Other conditions that can cause similar pain include:
Juvenile idiopathic arthritis
There are six different types of juvenile idiopathic arthritis. Of these, the ones most likely to cause pain similar to growing pains are idiopathic — which has no known cause.
Other symptoms of idiopathic juvenile arthritis include:
- joint pain and swelling
- joints that are warm to the touch
- swollen lymph nodes
- weight loss
- sleep issues
Fibromyalgia is a long-term or chronic disorder. It’s associated with widespread pain in the muscles and bones, areas of tenderness, and general fatigue. Other symptoms of fibromyalgia include:
- concentration issues (aka feeling “foggy”)
Osteosarcoma (bone cancer)
Osteosarcoma is a type of bone cancer that mostly occurs in children and teenagers. It can be slow or fast-growing and usually starts near the ends of the arm or leg bones, commonly involving the end of one of the long bones near the knee.
Pain or swelling in the affected arm or leg is the most common symptom. This pain is often worse at night or with exercise. If the tumor is in the leg, the child may develop a limp. In some cases, a broken bone will be the first sign of cancer, because it weakens the bone.
Restless leg syndrome
Restless leg syndrome is a condition characterized by the uncontrollable urge to move your legs. It causes an uncomfortable sensation that may be temporarily eased by moving.
Symptoms of restless leg syndrome usually happen at night, while sitting or lying down. They may disrupt sleep.
Hypermobility is when your joints move beyond the normal range of motion. It’s also known as being “double-jointed.” When there’s muscle stiffness and joint pain in addition to hypermobility, it’s called joint hypermobility syndrome.
Hypermobility symptoms often get worse at night and after exercise. They tend to get better with rest.
Vitamin D deficiency
Injuries can cause joint, muscle, or bone pain that is similar to growing pains. However, with an injury, the pain will be localized to one area. It may cause redness, swelling, and decreased mobility.
Most growing pains are not serious and will go away on their own. However, if your child has any of the following signs and symptoms, they should see a doctor. It may be a sign of a more serious condition:
- pain happens often
- pain caused by an injury
- pain interferes with normal activity
- pain only on one side of their body
- pain in joints, especially with redness and swelling
- pain that lasts into morning
- loss of appetite
- unexplained weight loss
Growing pains are usually harmless pains that children outgrow. Massaging, stretching, and over-the-counter pain-relieving medications are the best way to ease your child’s pain.
However, there are some underlying conditions with similar symptoms and may pose a serious problem. Your child should see their doctor if the pain interferes with their daily life or if they have any of these other symptoms.