Skip to main content
Is it Growing Pains or Something More Serious?

You are listening to Health Library:

Is it Growing Pains or Something More Serious?

Nov 15, 2021

Most kids will experience pains in their legs at some point whether it be through overuse or the aching associated with growing pains. But if your child’s leg pain is severe or lasting longer than a day, it may be something more serious. Pediatric orthopedic specialist Dr. Julia Rawling shares what signs and symptoms parents should be on the lookout for that may indicate something more serious than growing pains.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: Now, if your child is complaining of leg pains, could it be growing pains, or is it something more serious?

Dr. Julia Rawlings is a nonoperative sports medicine physician here at University of Utah Health. And let's start with the type of leg pain I think just about every kid, at some point, experiences. One point or another, it seems pretty benign. What exactly is growing pain? What are growing pains, I guess?

Dr. Rawlings: Yeah. So growing pains, the name came kind of early in the 1930s and 1940s when people thought that growth was related to these pains that children get, usually later in the afternoon, evening, or maybe even wakes them up at night. But we know now that it's not related to growth, but it's more likely just related to children being very active during the day. So it's just these pains that come on later in the day or at night, mostly from kind of overuse of muscles.

Interviewer: But it's not like the bones are stretching or anything like that. It's just . . .

Dr. Rawlings: No, it doesn't have anything to do with growing. It does happen in children, but it doesn't affect their growth. It's not directly related to growing.

Interviewer: My understanding is it's pretty normal for kids to be having this and just as part of, like, I guess being active and running around.

Dr. Rawlings: It's very common. And the places where it's most common, usually it happens in the calf, the thigh, or the back of the knee. So those are some of the spots that we look at.

Interviewer: Okay. And it's like an aching or just like . . . I guess, how do we know that it's like that kind of pain?

Dr. Rawlings: Yeah, it's like an aching or a throbbing pain. Sometimes children will grab the back of their legs or grab their thighs or just be more cranky. It's usually at the end of the day. It can wake them up at night though.

Interviewer: And so your child's complaining of pain. I guess, as a parent, if you're worried, you know, what should you be on the lookout for to find out if it's something more than just typical growing pains?

Dr. Rawlings: Yeah. So growing pains usually happen intermittently. So it can happen every night, but that's a little less common. So growing pains typically are intermittent. They're usually in both legs, not necessarily at the same time. And the child usually wakes up in the morning completely fine and running around like there's nothing wrong. Those are all very typical for growing pains.

Interviewer: So say a kid is, you know, maybe continually complaining about leg pain or maybe they're getting it through the day. As a parent, what are some of the signs and symptoms that you should be on the lookout for to kind of let you know this isn't growing pains, it's something more serious?

Dr. Rawlings: Yeah, great question. So if your child is complaining of pain, particularly during the day, if they are complaining of pain in the same leg, if the pain stops them from participating in sports activities or from running with their friends, if they are limping with the pain during the day, or if you see anything else that seems abnormal, so swelling of the leg, redness of the leg, if they're getting fevers with it, all of that is something besides growing pains, and you should be seen for that.

Interviewer: And not to, say, worry parents, you know, prematurely, but what could be going on with their child?

Dr. Rawlings: So it could be something as simple as an overuse injury. Lots of times, in children that play sports, we see overuse injury at the growth plates actually. That's probably one of the more common things. If they're very active, say a teenager running, they could get a stress injury. They could just have tight muscles, and stretching could be helpful. All the way up to the more serious things that are very rare and uncommon, like childhood arthritis or bone cancer.

Interviewer: If your child is, say, showing some of these symptoms, what kind of doctor should you be going to, to, you know, treat the leg? Is it a primary care pediatrician? Is it a sports medicine specialist?

Dr. Rawlings: I think, initially, if your pain is kind of vague and you're not sure what's going on, starting with the pediatrician is a great place. If it's something more serious, like they're not limping, they can't get into the pediatrician, it is reasonable to go to an urgent care or the emergency department, particularly if they won't walk at all. We need to see what's happening. There are . . . sometimes toddlers will have a small fall and twist their leg, and they won't walk, and they'll have a little fracture that you won't even pick up on. And so that's one of the more common reasons we'll see toddlers stop walking, and that's something that can be taken care of either by a pediatrician, a nonoperative sports medicine provider, or in an urgent care emergency medicine setting.

Interviewer: And is there anything, maybe a home remedy, something they could try at home before they, say, take them into a doctor to maybe alleviate any of the pain that they're experiencing?

Dr. Rawlings: Yeah. So if they're experiencing more of these growing pains, kind of intermittent pains in the evening or at night, you can do things like massage the legs, massage the muscles. Warm packs, heating pads are helpful. If it's severe, you can try some acetaminophen, Tylenol, or ibuprofen. And sometimes if it's pretty frequent, you can have them do some stretching during the day and see if that helps as well.