"Growing pains" is a harmless condition of unknown cause that affects 10 to 20 percent of growing children. It is somewhat more common in girls. Despite the name, growing pains do not occur during the time of most rapid growth, such as the adolescent growth spurt, do not occur at specific sites of growth, and do not affect the growth of children who have them. Approximately one-third of children with growing pains also experience other forms of recurrent pain, such as headaches or abdominal pain.
Growing pains are characterized by the symptoms listed below.
- Occurs in children three to 12 years of age.
- Pain usually occurs in the both legs, especially thighs and calves, but may affect one leg at a time and vary which leg or part of the leg is affected. Pain in the arms is less common, but may occur in conjunction with leg pain. If the pain is localized to a single specific joint, it probably is not growing pains.
- Pain occurs almost exclusively in the evenings and night time, often causing awakening during the night. To ease the discomfort, try a massage, heating pad, or a mild nonprescription pain medication.
- Pain does not occur consistently during daytime activities or interfere with usual playground, recreational or sports activities. However, children may complain more frequently in the nights following days during which they are very active. Growing pains do not cause limping.
- Pain may occur for months or years, as frequently as almost every night, often with symptom-free intervals of weeks or months. Symptoms may wax and wane but usually remain stable with time. Most children outgrow growing pains within several years.
- Children with growing pains have normal physical exam results. The results of X-rays and lab tests, although usually not needed, are also normal.
- Stretching the large muscle groups of the legs, such as the calves and thighs, can lessen symptoms, but is often impractical for young children.
- Symptoms of general illness, such as fever or weight loss
- Pain specific to a single joint
- Pain worsening with time
- Pain interfering with usual daytime activities
- Abnormal joint symptoms, such as restricted motion, redness, swelling, warmth, or tenderness in the related area
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Dr. Harris specializes in sports medicine at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and has specific expertise in the care of child and adolescent athletes.