Helping Your Child with Growing Pains

There is no cure for growing pains, the painful childhood condition that baffles parents, but there are treatments to alleviate the discomfort
By Shannon Neill

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Growing pains is not an unusual condition. Experts say between 25 per cent and 40 per cent of children experience growing pains at least once in their lives. Both boys and girls can get growing pains, although it appears to be more prevalent in boys. Although children can experience growing pains at any time during the day, they usually occur in the late afternoon and at night.
 
Growing pains are often made worse by intensive exercise or high-impact sports, although they can occur even when a child has not been particularly busy.
 
Marianne Unger, a lecturer at Stellenbosch University’s physiotherapy department, recommends that children with growing pains should try to avoid contact sports, as well as running and jumping. “It’s tough, especially if your child enjoys sport. My advice is not to stop your child from exercising, but rather to channel them into less high-impact sports such as swimming and cycling,” she says.
 
When Do Growing Pains Occur?
 
Growing pains occur when a child is going through a growth spurt, generally during two periods: in early childhood, among three- to five-year-olds; and later on in eight- to 12-year-olds. However, there is no hard and fast rule.
 
Felicity Clemence’s daughters, Nicky, 15, and Michele, 12, both started getting growing pains when they were about five years old. “The girls didn’t get the pains every night – they both had them about twice a week. They had them for about five years intensively and then they just grew out of it. They both still get flashes of it, especially if they’ve been very active,” says Felicity.
 
Karleen Scott’s son Dylan, now 15, was also about five when his growing pains started. “They started with hip pain that radiated down into his legs. I’m a physiotherapist so I know about some of the conditions children get that cause pain in the legs. I was worried he might have Perthes disease, a condition that occurs mostly in boys aged between three and six and nine and 12.
 
“With Perthes disease the blood supply to the humerus is compromised and you get necrosis [the bone starts dying] at the head of the humerus. If that happens, deformities can occur. I took Dylan to a doctor and had X-rays and an MRI done. In the end the doctor said it was growing pains. He has now grown out of them. My daughter who is 11 gets growing pains every now and then, especially when she’s done a lot of exercise.”
 
Marianne is aware of cases where growing pains have continued until a child is as old as 17 or 18.
 
What Causes Growing Pains?
 
“Growing pains occur when the muscles and bones don’t grow proportionately as the child grows. The muscles grow more slowly than the bones do and this places a lot of strain on the bones where the muscles attach. The constant tension on the bones causes inflammation, but not usually in the joint,” explains Marianne.
 
In very severe cases the muscles can pull off the bone, resulting in Osgood-Schlatter’s disease. “The thigh muscle attaches over the knee and the tendon inserts just below the knee cap. It’s very near the growth plate where the bone is soft and when there is a lot of tension it’s quite possible for the muscle to pull away from the bone. If this happens surgery is necessary,” says Marianne.
 
Growing pains are always concentrated in the muscles, rather than in the joints. Sue Statham, a physiotherapist in private practice and a part-time lecturer at Stellenbosch University, stresses that if your child is in pain it’s important to get a diagnosis from a doctor. However, there are a few clues that indicate that the problem is caused by something other than growing pains.
 
“The pain shouldn’t be persistent. If the pain is persistent it could indicate an injury or trauma. Growing pains don’t create heat in the joint or give the child a temperature,” she says. Indications that the problem might need medical intervention are: persistent pain, pain in the morning and swelling or redness in a particular area or joint, pain associated with a specific injury, fever, limping, unusual rashes, loss of appetite, and weakness.
 
Generally children who are in pain because of a disease don’t like being handled, as movement tends to increase their pain. Growing pains, however, are usually eased through massage and gentle rubbing. Children with growing pains tend to like being held and massaged.
 
Experts, parents and children who’ve suffered growing pains all agree that while the condition may not usually be medically dangerous, it is serious and should be treated as such. Sue says: “Don’t ever tell your child it’s nothing. Growing pains are very real and very sore.”
 
How Do You Help Your Child Deal With the Pain?
 
Marianne advises: “It’s a good idea to see a physiotherapist who can evaluate your child and see which muscles are causing the most pain. Your physiotherapist can then implement a stretch programme for those muscles.” According to a 2006 University of South Australia study, although there’s scientific evidence that muscle stretching is a helpful intervention for growing pains, it’s not generally used by parents, nor do health professionals recommend it often enough.
 
Applying heat to the painful area can also give children a measure of relief. Applying an ice pack can also help, although children don’t tolerate ice and cold as well as they do heat. If your child will tolerate the cold, physiotherapist Claire Louw strongly recommends a product called Recover Ice.
 
In addition, depending on where the pain is, an electro-therapy – such as ultrasound – can be used to warm the muscles and bring relief.
 
Most people who’ve dealt with growing pains agree that gentle massage and soft rubbing eventually help bring relief.
 
If none of these treatments help, you can also give your child a painkiller that’s been recommended by your doctor.

Comments

Anonymous wrote 4 years 14 weeks ago

Thanks for the information but also all of the stories! It really worries a parent to hear their child complain when the pain is severe. My son is six and has always complained about sore legs after a long play day. However, now I think it has increased in intensity and it also comes earlier in the afternoon/evening than before. It helps to read your advice and calms me down. Thanks again!

Monette wrote 6 years 24 weeks ago

I can relate. My eldest daughter suffered with growing pains when she was 4 to 5 year old. She will be 8 this December and still complains about it from time to time. Now, my youngest daughter is really suffering from growing pains. She is only 6, but she has a body of a nine-year-old girl and I feel sorry for her. Whenever she has an attack I massage her two legs with anti-inflammatory cream. It really works.

Anonymous wrote 6 years 49 weeks ago

My 5 year old daughter suffers from growing pains every now and then and we were recommended and old fashioned remedy - Comfrey Cream! It definitely helps soothe the aches.

Anonymous wrote 6 years 50 weeks ago

I find that giving Calmag at night helps with the problem. My 6 year old daughter has had growing pains since she was about 4 and a half. And the hot water bottle is also good to have on hand. I also use magnesium oil spray rubbed on her legs.

Anonymous wrote 7 years 3 weeks ago

My 4 year old son has been having growing pains for years now. I remember them vividly as a child, but I remember how hard it was for my brother even more so. He is now 6'4" and I remember how painful it was for him to grow so fast as a child. My mom would often use compression wraps for him when massaging wasn't enough. That seemed to be the easiest non-medicating solution. Coming from a taller family, I know how important it is for parents to at least be aware of how painful growing pains can be. It's easy to blow it off if you never experienced it yourself, so the more talk, the better.

Mandy Molloy wrote 7 years 16 weeks ago

My two-year-old son has been getting these for a while now. Maybe once a week for a month or so. I knew he was in pain as he squirms and whimpers and tells me his leg is sick, but I didn't realise what it was until now. I have been up late tonight rubbing his leg. It usually seems to only be the left leg. I will still take him to a GP for a check up. Thanks for your help in hopefully finding out what may be wrong.

admin wrote 7 years 16 weeks ago

We're glad to have helped, Mandy. And we do hope everything turns out well.

janice wrote 7 years 41 weeks ago

My son had Osgood-Schlatter disease and it can be very painful. We used the treatments from osgoodschlatters.org/treatments to get him through the pain.

Anonymous wrote 7 years 45 weeks ago

Thank you for this article. My son is 6 years old and also suffers terribly from growing pains in his legs. Usually he curls up into a little ball and after some pain medication will feel better. I am going to try the massage next time.

Anonymous wrote 7 years 45 weeks ago

Perthes disease is a condition of the hip (proximal femur). The humerus is in the arm.

Anonymous wrote 8 years 29 weeks ago

Thanks lots for giving such a useful tips on reducing growing pain among children. This post certainly helps many children suffering from growing pain. Please keep up the good work.

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