Dr. Greene’s Answer:
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 most often caused by growing pains. These pains typically occur at night with no resultant daytime disability.
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.
Any child who has a tender bone, or who has a limp between cramps, should return to the doctor.