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Growing Pains

Your child wakes up crying in the night complaining that his legs are throbbing. You rub them and soothe him as much as you can, but you're uncertain about whether to give him any medication or take him to the doctor. Sound familiar? Your child is probably experiencing growing pains, a normal occurrence in about 25% to 40% of children. They generally strike during two periods: in early childhood among 3- to 5-year-olds and, later, in 8- to 12-year-olds. Growing pains are quite rare in toddlers and teenagers.
Growing pains aren't a disease. You probably won't have to go to the doctor for them. But they can hurt. Doctors don't believe that growing actually causes pain, but growing pains stop when kids stop growing. By the teen years, most kids don't get growing pains anymore. Kids get growing pains in their legs. Most of the time they hurt in the front of the thighs (the upper part of your legs), in the calves (the back part of your legs below your knees), or behind the knees. Usually, both legs hurt. Growing pains often start to ache right before bedtime. Sometimes you go to bed without any pain, but you might wake up in the middle of the night with your legs hurting. The best news about growing pains is that they go away by morning.

What causes growing pains in children

Growing pains don't hurt around the bones or joints (the flexible parts that connect bones and let them move) — only in the muscles. For this reason, some doctors believe that kids might get growing pains because they've tired out their muscles. When you run, climb, or jump a lot during the day, you might have aches and pains in your legs at night.

Symptoms of growing pains

Growing pains always concentrate in the muscles, rather than the joints. Most kids report pains in the front of their thighs, in the calves, or behind the knees. Whereas joints affected by more serious diseases are swollen, red, tender, or warm, the joints of kids experiencing growing pains appear normal.
Although growing pains often strike in late afternoon or early evening before bed, pain can sometimes wake a sleeping child. The intensity of the pain varies from child to child, and most kids don't experience the pains every day.

Diagnosing Growing Pains

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. In rare instances, blood and X-ray studies may be required before a final diagnosis of growing pains is made.

Helping Your Child

Some things that may help alleviate the pain include:

  • Massaging the area
  • Stretching
  • Placing a heating pad on the area
  • Giving ibuprofen or acetaminophen (Never give aspirin to a child under 12 due to its association with Reye syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal disease.)

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