“Growing pains” may be felt by as many as one-third of children ages 4 to 14 and can be distressing for both child and parent. However, these aches in the legs or arms are a normal part of childhood and not a serious condition.
The pain or discomfort caused by so-called growing pains may cause sleepless nights for children and worry for parents. “Despite the name, no firm evidence exists that the growth of bones causes pain. These aches are probably not related to growth,” states Dr. Carlos Lerner, medical director of the UCLA Children’s Health Center and assistant professor of pediatrics. The pain is most likely caused by muscle fatigue. Active children run, jump, climb, and exert their muscles in a multitude of ways during typical play. By the end of the day, tired, exhausted, stretched out, and stressed out, the muscles cry for relief — and so does the child.
Symptoms: Pain in the legs, or sometimes the arms, due to overexertion commonly affects children late in the day or at nighttime after a particularly athletic day and generally go away in the morning. Notable features of growing pains include frequency and occurrence (at night after an active day), pain intensity (mild) and the location of pain (front of thigh, calf muscles or back of the knee).
Diagnosis and Treatment: One symptom that doctors find most helpful in making a diagnosis of growing pains is how the child responds to touch while in pain. Kids who have pain from a serious medical disease don’t like to be handled because movement tends to increase the pain. But those with growing pains respond differently — they feel better when they’re held, massaged and cuddled.
Growing pains are what doctors call a diagnosis of exclusion. This means that other conditions should be ruled out before a diagnosis of growing pains is made. A thorough history and physical examination by your doctor can usually accomplish this goal. In rare instances, blood and X-ray studies may be required before a final diagnosis of growing pains is made.
Listen to your child and provide comfort. Although the pain may be scary to children, explain to them that the pains are probably caused by overexertion of their muscles and will go away with time. “Try massage and heating pads first. If the pain is severe, pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be used,” advises Dr. Lerner. Alert your doctor if persistent pain, swelling or redness in one particular area occurs.
Symptoms that may point to more serious problems include:
• Pain in the joints
• Redness, swelling or warmth over the joints or limbs
• Persistent fever or fatigue
• Weight loss
• Persistent limp
• Pain that persists in the morning
• Pain that affects just one side
• Prior injury to the painful area
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