Growing pains are aches or pains, usually in the lower legs, that develop in the evening or night. Children aged between three and 12 may be affected. Although they can be distressing, growing pains are fairly common and don’t cause long-term harm.
Despite the name, there’s no clear evidence to suggest that growing pains are the result of growth spurts. This is why some doctors prefer to use the term “recurrent nocturnal limb pain in children”.
What are the symptoms?
Growing pains are felt as intense, cramp-like pain in both legs. They most often affect the calves, shins or ankles, but can also affect the thighs.
The pains develop in the evening or at night (often after more active days), but shouldn’t be present in the morning.
Your child’s ability to walk shouldn’t be affected by growing pains and there should be no signs of limp, physical injury or infection.
If your child’s symptoms are different to those described above it’s unlikely they have growing pains. For example, if only one leg is affected or they’re limping. In these cases, take your child to see a GP (see below), as they may have an underlying medical condition.
What causes growing pains?
The cause of growing pains is unknown, although they seem to be more common in active children and children with loose, flexible joints (joint hypermobility). They also tend to run in families.
There’s no clear evidence to suggest they’re the result of growth spurts or any underlying conditions.
What to do
Growing pains can usually be treated at home. You can give your child paracetamol or ibuprofen to manage the pain. Sometimes, giving them painkillers before bedtime after an active day can prevent them waking in the night.
However, children under 16 should not be given aspirin unless your doctor specifically advises this.
You can also try firmly massaging your child’s leg muscles and joints or applying warmth to their legs, for example with heat packs.
Supportive footwear such as trainers might help prevent growing pains. Make sure any shoelaces are tied and that shoes with Velcro are fastened firmly.
When to see your GP
See your GP if your child’s symptoms are particularly severe or suggest they may have another condition, such as:
- pain in just one leg
- pain also affecting the arms or back
- pain that occurs every night or continues during the day
- swollen joints
- a high temperature (fever)
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
- reluctance to walk, or a limp with no obvious cause
Your GP will want to rule out an injury or other illnesses, such as arthritis, vitamin D deficiency (rickets) or even leukaemia if your child is unwell. They may refer your child to hospital for further assessment.
Link with restless legs syndrome?
Some doctors are investigating whether there’s a link between growing pains and restless legs syndrome (RLS). RLS is a condition of the nervous system that causes:
- an overwhelming urge to move the legs
- an unpleasant sensation in the legs that eases once the legs are moved
It’s not currently known whether growing pains are an early form of RLS, or an entirely separate condition.