Growing pains are aches or pains, most commonly in the lower legs, that occur in the evening or at night and affect children aged between three and 12. Although they can be distressing, growing pains do not cause long-term harm.
Despite the name, there is no clear evidence to suggest that growing pains are the result of growth spurts. This is why some doctors prefer to use the term 'recurrent nocturnal limb pain in children'.
What are the symptoms?
Growing pains are felt as intense, cramp-like pain in both legs. They most often affect the calves, shins or ankles, but can also affect the thighs.
The pains develop in the evening or at night (often after more active days), but should not be present in the morning.
Your child's ability to walk should not be affected by growing pains and there should be no signs of limp, physical injury or infection.
If your child's symptoms are different to those described above, for example if only one leg is affected or they are limping, it's unlikely they have growing pains. In these cases, you should take your child to see a GP (see below), as they may have an underlying medical condition.
What causes growing pains?
The cause of growing pains is unknown, although they seem to be more common in active children and children with loose, flexible joints (joint hypermobility). They also tend to run in families.
There is no clear evidence to suggest they are the result of growth spurts or any underlying conditions.
What to do
Growing pains can usually be treated at home. You can give your child paracetamol or ibuprofen to manage the pain. Sometimes, giving them painkillers before bedtime after an active day can prevent them waking in the night.
However, children under 16 should not be given aspirin unless your doctor specifically advises this.
You can also try firmly massaging your child's leg muscles and joints or applying warmth to their legs, for example with heat packs.
Supportive footwear such as trainers might help prevent growing pains. Make sure that any shoelaces are tied and that shoes with Velcro are fastened firmly.
When to see your GP
See your GP if your child's symptoms are particularly severe or suggest they may have another condition, such as:
pain in just one leg
pain also affecting the arms or back
pain that occurs every night or continues during the day
a high temperature (fever)
loss of appetite
reluctance to walk, or a limp with no obvious cause
Your GP will want to rule out other illnesses, such as arthritis, vitamin D deficiency (rickets) or even leukaemia if you child is unwell, and may refer your child to hospital for further assessment.
Link with restless legs syndrome?
Some doctors are investigating whether there is a link between growing pains and restless legs syndrome (RLS). This is a condition of the nervous system that causes an overwhelming urge to move the legs and an unpleasant sensation in the legs that eases once the legs are moved.
It's not currently known whether growing pains are an early form of RLS, or whether they are entirely separate conditions.