Is Your Child Having Growing Pains?

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Young children frequently experience nighttime leg pain that can wake them up and cause them to cry, moan, or clutch their limbs. Such pain is often referred to as growing pains, yet this term is a misnomer because there is no evidence that growing hurts.

What are Growing Pains?
Growing pains is a phrase that is typically used to describe leg pain in young children that has no apparent cause. The medical term is “benign idiopathic nocturnal limb pains of childhood.” Episodes of growing pains can be highly disruptive for both the children who experience it and their families, resulting in distress and a lack of adequate sleep for all parties. Experts believe that growth does not cause pain, and that the leg pains are not associated with a dietary deficiency. The best explanation put forth for the cause of growing pains is that it is the result of overuse of the muscles during the day, as the condition is seen most often in active children and children who have hypermobile joints. Growing pains also tend to run in families.

Children most often experience growing pains in early evening or later, and the discomfort can awaken them in the middle of the night. The pain is often described as crampy, a throb, or an ache that occurs in the front of the thighs, the calves, or behind the knees. Both legs are usually involved, and some children also have a headache or abdominal pain during their painful leg episodes. About 40 percent of children experience growing pains at some point and to varying degrees. They mostly affect children ages 2 to 12 and girls slightly more often than boys.

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Treatment of Growing Pains
The Mayo Clinic recommends the following treatments for growing pains:

  • Gentle massage of the child’s legs can help relieve the pain. Some children prefer to be held
  • Stretching the child’s legs both during the day and at bedtime can offer relief
  • Use of an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen (e.g., Advil, Motrin) or acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol) can be helpful. Do not give children aspirin because there is a risk of Reye’s syndrome, a rare but serious condition that can develop in children who take aspirin.
  • Use of a heating pad, set on a low setting and applied to the legs before bedtime or when the pain occurs, can sooth sore muscles. The heating pad should be removed when the child falls asleep. A warm bath combined with leg massage can also help.

If It’s Not Growing Pains
Even though the leg pain is not caused by any serious underlying condition in the vast majority of cases, parents should consider consulting their pediatrician if: the pain persists, it is still present in the morning, it is located in the joints, it interferes with the child’s normal activities, it is associated with an injury, or it is accompanied by swelling, tenderness, fever, limping, rash, weakness, fatigue, loss of appetite, or redness. Although not common, other conditions can be confused with growing pains, including chronic rheumatic disease, inflammatory muscle disease, childhood arthritis, leukemia, and sepsis.

Some studies have suggested a relationship between growing pains in young people and the development of restless leg syndrome, a condition characterized by leg discomfort and an uncontrollable urge to move the legs. In a recent study from the University of Illinois, for example, 18 adolescents with restless leg syndrome were evaluated, and 10 had a history of growing pains. So far, however, a definitive link between the two conditions is not clear.

Several simple treatment options are available for children who are experiencing growing pains. If your child’s growing pains persist or he or she has other signs or symptoms, you should seek medical advice.

SOURCES:
Guardian, Jan. 12, 2010
Mayo Clinic
Picchietti DL, Stevens HE. Sleep Medicine 2008 Oct; 9(7): 770-81

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