July 13, 2009
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
It's a story I hear frequently from worried parents: Their child has leg pains that come and go. The parent can't see anything wrong, but the pain makes the child miserable. Sometimes it's bad enough to wake the child from sleep.
When I hear this, the diagnosis nearly always ends up being growing pains.
"Growing pains" are very common. They affect up to a third of children. They peak at around age 6. The pains usually occur once or twice a week, but they can happen every day. Between episodes, the child is pain-free. These pains usually:
We don't know what causes growing pains. One thing that probably doesn't cause them is growing. There's no evidence that growth hurts. But there are theories about what causes them:
Growing pains are what we call a "diagnosis of exclusion." This means that we rule out other possible causes of pain before we say a child is suffering from growing pains. These may include injuries, arthritis or even cancer, which is incredibly rare, so don't worry! If your child is complaining of leg pains, make an appointment with your doctor.
Whenever I see a child with leg pains I ask lots and lots of questions. I also do a very careful examination. Sometimes I will order blood tests or do imaging studies like X-rays or a bone scan. I'm much more likely to do this if:
Once I've made the diagnosis of growing pains, the biggest thing I have to offer families is reassurance that there is nothing serious going on. These pains eventually go away on their own by the time a child becomes a teen. In the meantime, there are some things that parents can do to help:
Don't worry if you can't predict when the pain is coming. In fact, don't worry is the most important message of all when it comes to growing pains. They will pass, like the other trials and tribulations of childhood just in time for the trials and tribulations of adolescence. Ah, parenthood!
Claire McCarthy, M.D., is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.