Growing pains are an aching or throbbing pain in the legs or other extremities. They usually affect children ages 3 to 5 and 8 to 12. Growing pains usually occur in both legs, in the calves, front of thighs, and behind the knees.
Bone growth isn’t actually painful. While the cause of growing pains is unknown, it may be linked to children being active during the day. Growing pains are diagnosed when other conditions are ruled out.
While growing pains generally affect children, this type of pain doesn’t always stop once someone has reached puberty.
The hallmarks of growing pains are muscle aches and pains that usually occur usually in both legs. Other symptoms include:
- leg pain that comes and goes
- pain that usually starts in the late afternoon or evening (and may wake you up at night, but is usually gone by morning)
- abdominal pain
People stop growing a few years after they go through puberty. For girls, this is usually around ages 14 or 15. For boys, it’s usually by age 16. However, you can continue to have symptoms that resemble growing pains into adulthood.
The following are potential causes of growing pain sensations in adults:
Delayed onset muscle soreness
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is muscle pain that happens several hours to several days after exercise. It can range from muscle tenderness to severe pain.
The cause of DOMS is unknown, but it’s most common when starting a new activity or returning to strenuous activity after a period of time off. The duration and intensity of exercise also affect your likelihood of developing DOMS.
DOMS can cause a decrease in your range of motion and your ability to put full weight on your leg. It may cause you to put more stress on other parts of your leg, which can lead to injuries.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), massaging the affected leg, and reducing your activity for a few days can all help you recover from DOMS.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which your immune system attacks healthy cells in your body. This causes inflammation in the lining of your joints.
Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include:
- pain in several joints, usually the same joints on both side of the body (such as both knees)
- joint stiffness
- joint swelling
Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. It occurs when a joint begins to break down and change the underlying bone. Older people are more likely to develop osteoarthritis.
Symptoms include pain and swelling in the joints, stiffness, and decreased range of motion.
There are many conditions that may feel like growing pains, but they generally come with other symptoms. Some conditions that may cause symptoms similar to growing pains include:
Restless legs syndrome
Restless legs syndrome gives you an uncontrollable urge to move your legs because of uncomfortable sensations in them. Moving your legs will temporarily relieve your symptoms.
Symptoms of restless legs syndrome include:
- uncomfortable sensations in the evening or nighttime, especially while you’re sitting or lying down
- twitching and kicking your legs while sleeping
If you think you might have restless legs syndrome, talk to a doctor. This syndrome can interfere with sleep, which can negatively affect your quality of life.
Joint hypermobility occurs when you have an unusually large range of movement in your joints. You might know it as being double-jointed.
Many people with joint hypermobility don’t have any symptoms or issues. However, some people may experience:
- joint pain
- clicking joints
- gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhea and constipation
- recurrent soft tissue injuries like sprains
- joints that dislocate easily
Having these symptoms in addition to joint hypermobility is called joint hypermobility syndrome. If you have these symptoms, see a doctor. You may have issues with your connective tissue.
Lyme disease is an illness caused by tick-borne bacteria. Symptoms of Lyme disease include:
- bullseye or circular rash
Lyme disease is treatable with antibiotics. However, if left untreated, it can spread to your joints, heart, and nervous system. If you have a fever and other symptoms that don’t improve, see a doctor, especially if you’ve been in an area with Lyme disease or were bitten by a tick.
Cramps are involuntary muscle contractions. They may make your muscles feel tight or knotted. Leg cramps often occur in the calves and at night. They come on suddenly and are most common in middle-aged or older adults.
Occasional leg cramps are common and usually harmless. However, if your cramps are frequent and severe, see a doctor.
Deep vein thrombosis is a blood clot that forms in the major veins of your body, most commonly in the legs. In some cases, you might not have any symptoms. If you do have symptoms, they may include:
- leg pain
- warmth in the affected leg
Blood clots are usually caused by an underlying medical condition. They can also be caused by not moving for a long period of time, such as after surgery.
If you think you have a blood clot in your leg, see a doctor as soon as possible. The blood clot can break away and move to your lungs, which is a medical emergency.
Shin splints are an inflammation of the muscles, tendons, and bone tissue around your tibia. You’ll have pain on the inside of your shin, where the muscle meets the bone.
The pain usually comes during or after exercise. It’s generally sharp and throbbing, and is made worse by touching the inflamed spot. Shin splints can also cause minor swelling.
Shin splints can often be treated at home with rest, ice, and stretching. If these don’t help or your pain is severe, see a doctor.
Fibromyalgia causes aches and pains all over your body. It can also cause:
- mood problems, such as depression or anxiety
- memory loss
- irritable bowel syndrome
- numbness or tingling in your hands and feet
- sensitivity to noise, light, or temperature
If you have multiple symptoms of fibromyalgia, or the symptoms interfere with your daily life, see a doctor. People with fibromyalgia sometimes have to see multiple doctors before receiving a diagnosis.
Bone cancer (osteosarcoma) is a type of cancer that affects the bones themselves. Bone pain is the most common symptom. It usually starts as tenderness, then turns into an ache that doesn’t go away, even while resting.
Other signs of bone cancer include:
- lump on the affected bone
- affected bone breaking more easily
See a doctor if you have severe bone pain that’s persistent or worsens over time.
Stress fractures are tiny cracks in the bone, usually caused by overuse. Symptoms include:
- pain that worsens over time
- tenderness that comes from a specific spot
Most stress fractures will heal with rest. If the pain is severe or doesn’t go away with rest, see a doctor.
Osteomyelitis is an infection in the bone. It can either start in the bone, or it can travel through the bloodstream to infect the bone. Symptoms include:
- warmth in the affected area
- general discomfort
See a doctor if you have these symptoms, especially if you’re an older adult, have diabetes, a weakened immune system, or a higher risk of infection. Osteomyelitis can be treated with antibiotics. However, if left untreated, it can cause bone tissue death.
Adults may have growing pain sensations, but they usually aren’t growing pains. The sensation can be harmless, but it can also be a sign of an underlying problem. If your pain is severe, lasts for a long time, or you have other symptoms, see a doctor.