Could My Child Have Growing Pains?

My 3-year old daughter is always complaining of pains in her legs during the night, could these be growing pains?
Shelly West – Kamiah, Indiana

Growing Pains

Dr. Greene’s Answer:

During childhood, the human body goes through an amazing series of changes. When babies are born their heads, hands, and feet are proportionally much larger in relation to their bodies than at any other time in life. It’s one of the things that make babies distinct and adorable. Throughout the growing up process, the human body changes proportions many, many times. Sometimes long, gangly arms and legs seem to shoot out over night! During these spurts of growth, children often complain of nighttime leg pain, hence the common label growing pains.

Most often, growing pains will feel like a sharp throbbing pain. The pain can occasionally even be strong enough to wake the child up from sleep. About 25 to -40% of children between the ages of 3 to 5 and again between the ages of 8 and 12 experience growing pains (Healthy Children, AAP, June 2010).

When children are plagued by episodes of recurrent, brief leg pain, it is a good idea for them to be checked once by a physician. If the physical examination is normal, with no redness, tenderness, swelling, or limitation of movement, and if the pain is not provoked by moving or associated with any abnormal gait, then this situation is what we often call growing pains. These pains typically occur at night with no resultant daytime disability. The actual source of the pain has never been proven, but long experience has taught us that they are benign and self-limited.

If the physical examination is not normal or the pain is associated with other symptoms, your doctor will be able to discuss in more detail other potential diagnoses such as chronic trauma, infection, restless leg syndrome, and childhood arthritis.

In children with benign growing pains, the muscles or tendons are still a little too tight for the growing long bones. Muscle spasms lasting from 1 to 15 minutes cause the pain. Many of these children are unable to touch their toes with their fingertips without bending their knees.

During a pain episode, stretching the foot and toes upward will often resolve the muscle spasm. Gentle massage and moist heat over the painful spot can also help.

In most cases the pain can be prevented with simple, daily stretching exercises. These exercises must be continued even after the pain subsides in order to keep the muscles and tendons relaxed and able to accommodate the next growth spurt.

Some physicians recommend giving a glass of tonic water before bed. I have never seen any studies evaluating this suggestion, but it might help and wouldn’t hurt. Plenty of fluids should make cramping less likely.

Although these painful occurrences of growing up are nothing to be worried about, like all of life’s growing pains, they can be quite bothersome when in the middle of an episode. It is precisely the reshaping of ourselves that causes physical and emotional growing pains — in both situations, the pain results in our becoming more mature people.

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Dr. Alan Greene

Dr. Greene is the founder of DrGreene.com (cited by the AMA as “the pioneer physician Web site”), a practicing pediatrician, father of four, & author of Raising Baby Green & Feeding Baby Green. He appears frequently in the media including such venues as the The New York Times, the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, & the Dr. Oz Show.

  1. Kaami Sen

    My 5 year old has this problem for more than year now.Wakes up at night of sharp pain
    and cries for hours.Now she says her arms and legs both hurt.

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  2. cchav

    My 5 year old son has chronic pains that last for hours. The pedriaticians cannot diagnose what is the cause. The doctor said he is okay; his blood test for chronic arthitis was negative, uric acid negative, no cancer cells were detected, x-ray was okay. He has no fractures.The worries are that he still continues with the chronic pains, he limps, and first it was only on the right leg now it is in both. We seeked a second opinion and all the test were retested and everything seems okay. He has been having this symptoms for 3 weeks .I really would like to know or have atleast an idea what is the cause, since the doctors cannot diagnose. He is only treated with pain relief medication, ibruprofen. Please, provide an urgent reccomendation. Thank You.

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    • loveline

      My son has same Problem and the doctors examined and said all is well with him, we should Keep a Close watch on the Situation. Maybe he is growing up.

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