© 2010 Roy Benaroch, MD
OK, I’ll admit it, this time I just made up a question. If you’ve got something you want me to write about, submit it under the “topic suggestions” thread via the link over there on the right. Please keep your questions short. I will not address very specific, individual medical problems here—this isn’t the place for me to diagnose your own child’s problems. Aim for more general-interest stuff that your friends and neighbors would want to read. Thanks!
Begonia Payne wrote in: “My 5 year-old-son has a lot of pains at night. He goes back to sleep, but I think there really is something hurting him. Is this ‘growing pains’”?
It could be, yes, but there are a few other questions I’d like to ask to make sure it’s not something else.
“Growing pains” are common and benign, and can usually be diagnosed based only on the pattern of pain. They occur a little more commonly in boys than girls, most typically starting at 4 to 8 years of age. The pain is almost always limited to the night-time hours, often waking children from sleep. During the day, children with growing pains do not limp or complain of pain. At night, they’ll usually complain of pain in one or both legs, and in a vague location that varies from side to side and site to site on subsequent nights. When children are asked to point at where it hurts, they’ll rub over an area rather than point specifically at one exact point.
It’s important to stress that the pain itself is very real—“growing pains” is not a euphemism for “faking it.” These kids are genuinely uncomfortable, and often scared. We don’t know, honestly, what causes growing pains, or if they actually have anything at all to do with growing. Still, “growing pains” is a good-enough name that seems to have stuck.
Fortunately, it’s easy to treat. Gentle massage or a heating pad can work very well. Use the safer kind of heating pad that you gently warm in the microwave, rather than the electric kind. A single dose of a pain medicine like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can also help. Though children with growing pains can be very uncomfortable, they’ll feel better in 20 to 30 minutes, so everyone can go back to sleep.
Recent research has shown that vitamin D deficiency can contribute to night-time muscle and bone pains in some children. Parents of children with apparent growing pains may want to try a vitamin D supplement, 400 IU per day (that’s the usual concentration in most children’s vitamins.)
Growing pains ought to fit a specific pattern, and should not be accompanied by other signs of illness. Beware of the following “red flags” that may mean something else may be causing pain in your child:
- Pain or limp during the day.
- Pain that persistently affects one specific joint or place.
- Associated fever, weight loss, or other symptoms of potentially serious disease.
- Pain that’s becoming more and more intense as weeks go by.
Growing pains are common, and though the pain is real they’re easy to treat. Kids with growing pain do not continue to have symptoms as they grow older, and there are no lasting effects. Speak with your child’s pediatrician to review the patterns of pain to ensure that nothing more needs to be done, and stock up on massage oil to help get through those painful, wakeful nights.