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Growing pains are formally known as “benign idiopathic nocturnal limb pains of childhood”. These are the sharp, throbbing pains in the thighs, calves, back of knees and arms, which occur in 25 to 40 per cent of children. The pain is in the muscles, not the joints, and is not accompanied by any swelling, tenderness or fever.
Although it’s easy to confuse the symptoms, growing pains and pains associated with growth spurts are entirely different. The pain that occurs with a growth spurt is usually more specific and is typically under the kneecap (Osgood-Schlatter disease) or in the heel (Sever’s disease). This is where bone growth outpaces the muscle tendon and flexibility, causing stress on the certain growth areas of the bone. The pain will be more apparent during or after any physical activity.
Growing pains are slightly more common in girls than in boys, and usually occur in cycles of one to three months, most commonly between the ages of three and five years, and then again between the ages of eight and 12 years. Seventy per cent of children with growing pains have a parent or sibling with a history of growing pains.
We don’t really know why some children are affected by this pain while others aren’t; there is no link to dietary deficiencies or growth spurts, and equally, no evidence that children with rapid growth or tall children have more growing pains than others. Additionally, these pains don’t generally occur at the growth points, nor affect the growth of a child who experiences them. Some studies have shown some similarities among sufferers, including lower pain tolerance, slightly lower bone density, and a higher likelihood of experiencing headaches and abdominal pain. But, there’s really no definitive answer.
Here are some tips to help relieve the discomfort at home:
• Place a heating pad or hot water bottle over the area of pain for at least 20 minutes.
• Gently massage the area with cream, such as Tiger Balm or something similar.
• Gently stretch the quadriceps (the large muscle on the front of the thigh), the hamstrings and calf muscles. For optimum results, stretch after a bath or shower and hold each stretch for more than two minutes.
• When your child is over-tired, halt strenuous activities.
• Consider braces and orthotics for better alignment – they are sometimes prescribed to give support to overused foot and knee muscles.
If your child is finding the pains terribly uncomfortable, please visit your doctor. Before your visit, be sure to note the answers to the following questions to help your doctor pinpoint the problem and rule out other causes:
• Where does the pain occur?
• What time of day is it most prevalent?
• How long does the pain last?
• What best relieves the pain?
• Does your child have difficulty falling asleep or wake up from the pain?
• Is your child participating in any new activities?
• Are there any other symptoms?
When you’re awake in the middle of the night massaging your child’s legs, it’s worth remembering that these pains are real and that your child will eventually grow out of them. But, for the moment, they will need your sympathy as much as they need a heat pack and gentle massage.
Melanie Potgieter is a physiotherapist at Island Health Family Practice.