Growing pains are a common complaint in childhood and tends to be reported by children between the ages of 3 and 12 years. In most cases, growing pains are described as a dull ache, particularly in the legs and hands. However severe pain, with other signs and symptoms, like fever, lethargy, swelling or loss of function of a limb should be investigated for other possible causes. Growing pains are not a serious condition and it is usually not related to growth spurts.
A common myth surrounding growing pains is that the rapid growth of long bones in the arm or leg causes stretching of the skin and soft tissues, resulting in pain. This is untrue. There is no evidence to suggest that growing pains are related to growth spurts and even if it occurs around this time, it is unlikely that a bone will extend in length to the point that it causes stretching or pressure on surrounding tissues.
Most cases of growing pains are reported in hyperactive children. This indicates that growing pains may more likely be muscular and related to overuse of the muscles. Muscle strain often causes a dull ache or burning pain and rest will help alleviate the pain significantly. Often growing pains may actually be related to attention-seeking measures or children reporting non-specific pain as a means of avoiding school. This may coincide with general ‘tummy ache’ (abdominal pain) and while it is advisable to consult with a doctor or paediatrician, it does not usually warrant serious medical attention.
If aches or pains in children is accompanied by swelling, especially of a limb, it is always recommended to seek medical advice. Stretching of the ligaments particularly around the joints of the legs is known as a sprain. This can cause severe pain and swelling in and around the joint. Stress fractures in children usually causes pain and swelling and these fractures may arise from falls or injuries. At times the cause of a fracture may not be obvious but these signs should be taken seriously. Children may lie about feeling pain, but symptoms like swelling cannot be mimicked.
Most parents do not give much attention to growing pains, although this may be a common cause of insomnia in childhood. Usually a mild anti-inflammatory like paracetamol will relieve the pain and assist with sleep, however if the pain is severe or persisting, immediate medical attention is required.