By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org
Are growing pains an imagined affliction? The real deal or maybe just an expression?
Dr. Emily Pittman, a pediatric hospitalist for Riley Children’s Health, gives the lowdown on what she calls episodic musculoskeletal pain in children, pain that often occurs at night but goes away without treatment.
It’s real and it does hurt, though it’s generally not serious.
Despite the name, growing pains actually do not happen when children are going through significant growth spurts, Dr. Pittman said. While the cause isn’t clear, some possible explanations include fatigue, mild orthopedic and postural abnormalities, hypermobility, restless leg syndrome and overuse.
“Studies are inconsistent with prevalence of growing pains, but they have been documented as occurring in 3% to 37% of children,” she said.
They usually present between ages 3 and 12 and can last into adolescence, with a slightly higher occurrence in girls.
Growing pains are more frequently reported in the legs compared to arms, although some kids can have pain in all extremities. Pain often occurs in both legs at the same time, in the thighs or calves, and can be severe, Dr. Pittman said. It’s rare but not unheard of for children to have abdominal pain or headaches along with extremity pain.
The ache or throbbing typically lasts 10 to 30 minutes, though in some cases it can last more than an hour.
Parents, understandably, might be concerned that their child’s pain could be a sign of something more serious, like cancer or juvenile idiopathic arthritis. How do they know when to go to the doctor?
“If the child appears ill, complains of pain during the day or with activity, or if pain worsens or persists,” Dr. Pittman said, a doctor visit may be warranted.
If it’s cancer, there may be a bump or mass that can be felt during an exam, and pain would likely be localized in one leg, for instance, especially when pressure is applied. Also, children with growing pains do not have associated fevers, daytime joint pain or inflammation.
Relief from growing pains can be found with massaging of the affected area, warm compresses, stretching and a pain reliever such as ibuprofen.