Jan 26, 2015

Dr. Gellner: Growing pains. You hear doctors and parents talk about them a lot. But what are they, and as a parent, when should you worry about them? I'm Dr. Cindy Gellner for The Scope.

Announcer: Medical news and research from University of Utah physicians and specialists you can use for a happier and healthier life. You're listening to The Scope.

Dr. Gellner: Several times a month I have a child come in and the parents have the concern that the child has leg pain, mainly at night and it doesn't keep their child from playing during the day. Sound familiar? These are growing pains. They're a normal occurrence in about 25% to 40% of children, and they generally strike in 2 periods -- in early childhood among the 3 to 5-year-olds and later in the 8 to 12-year-olds. This is also the time when kids have big growth spurts.
Growing pains concentrate in the muscles rather than in the joints. So kids will report pains in the front of their thighs or in their calves or in their shin bones or behind their knees, but it's always in a long bone. I've even had kids complain of growing pains in their arms.

Joints are not affected by growing pains. So knees, wrists, elbows, your child is not going to have pains in those very much. Joints are usually affected by more serious diseases, and you'll know because the joints in serious diseases are swollen, red, tender, or hot. Joints of kids having growing pains look and feel normal.

Although growing pains often strike late in the afternoon or early evening before bed, the pain can sometimes wake a sleeping child depending on their pain threshold. The intensity of pain varies from child to child. So your child may not seem that bothered by it, and they're like, "Yeah, my legs hurt, but they're not too bad." Where another child who's sensitive to pain may be balling on the ground and just holding their legs and crying, and you're like, "My child didn't fall. He didn't have any injury. What could possibly be going on?"

Most kids who have growing pains actually won't have them every day either. They may just have them a couple of times a week.

So we always say growing pains is because the bones are growing. Well, this hasn't actually been proven to cause the pain. Growing pains might just be aches and discomfort from jumping, climbing, running, things that active kids during those age groups do every day. And the pain can usually happen after the child has had a particularly busy day.

One symptom that most doctors find most helpful in diagnosing growing pains is how the child responds to touch while in pain. Kids who have pains from a serious medical cause do not like to be touched. The movement can make the pain worse. Even just gentle touching can cause excruciating pain.
But those with growing pains actually feel better when they're held, when their legs or their arms are massaged, when they're cuddled, they get to curl up on your lap. Kids with serious illnesses will not do that. They want to be completely left alone.

So how can you help your child when they have growing pains? You can massage the area, stretch, use a heating pad on the area, or give ibuprofen or Tylenol. Do not give aspirin to a child because it can be linked to something called Reye Syndrome, which is a very serious disease.

So your child keeps having these growing pains, and you want to make sure are they really growing pains or is something else starting? You just are worried.

When do you call the doctor? Call your doctor if the following symptoms occur with your child's pain. The pain is long lasting. You have swelling in one particular joint. Your child has pain associated with an injury, and you're worried that they may have actually broken the bone. Your child has a fever and bone pain and that's it. Your child is limping and it's not due to an injury. They have unusual rashes, usually over the joints or over the knuckles.

So while growing pains aren't usually related to illnesses, they can't be very upsetting to kids and their parents because the parents don't know how to help their child. Anytime your child is in pain you want to be able to help them. And if something keeps happening over and over and over, you feel helpless. You don't know what to do.

You can be reassured that growing pains will pass as children grow up. Give them your support and reassurance and do the supportive measures that we discussed. And if they have any of those concerning symptoms, be sure to follow up with your doctor.

Announcer: TheScopeRadio.com is University of Utah Health Scientist Radio. If you like what you heard, be sure to get our latest content by following us on Facebook. Just click on the Facebook icon at TheScopeRadio.com.

For Patients