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My Child’s Legs Hurt at Night – Is It Growing Pains?

June 08, 2022

If your child is experiencing growing pains, the pain is real.

As many as half of all kids have muscle and bone pain. But the term “growing pains” is misleading because this type of pain is not related to a growth spurt.

What Are Growing Pains?

Growing pains usually feel like aching, throbbing or cramping pain in your child’s legs. This pain most often occurs in the front of your child’s thighs, calves or behind the knees in both legs late in the day or at night. Your child may awaken from sleep in pain that can last from a few minutes to hours, but it is gone by the next day. These episodes occur intermittently.

Children between the ages of 3 to 12 years old are most likely to experience growing pains, which typically disappear within one or two years. Growing pains usually do not limit your child’s activity during the day.

Diagnosing Growing Pains

There is no test to diagnose growing pains. Instead, your child’s doctor may ask questions about the pain and what your child was doing on the day it started. More physical activity than usual during the day may cause growing pains to occur that night. The doctor also may order tests to rule out other causes of the pain. Your child’s answers and the test results help your child’s doctor conclude your child is experiencing growing pains.

How To Treat Growing Pains

There is no specific treatment for growing pains. Instead, your child’s doctor will suggest ways to manage the pain, such as:

  • Comforting your child
  • Gently massaging the painful areas
  • Using a heating pad
  • Taking over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen
  • Stretching the muscles
  • Strengthening hypermobility with physical therapy
  • Wearing orthotics (shoe inserts) if your child has flat feet
  • Increasing physical activity
  • Learning pain coping strategies through counseling

Causes of Nighttime Leg Pain

The cause of growing pains is unknown, but studies have found these factors contribute to their occurrence:

  • Increased activity or overuse of muscles
  • Stress on the bones, discs or nerves in the spine caused by hypermobility of joints or flat feet
  • Low vitamin D levels, leading to decreased bone strength
  • Lower pain threshold, which means your child is more likely to have headaches and abdominal pain, too
  • Psychological and social stress contributing to the development of pain
  • Family history of growing pains

Living with Growing Pains

You can’t prevent your child’s growing pains. However, there are some things you can do to help lessen the pain before it starts:

  • Encourage your child to take regular breaks from physical activities.
  • Sign your child up for different sports and activities that will use different muscles.
  • Have your child take a warm bath before bedtime to ease sore muscles and any pain.

When Should I Contact My Child’s Doctor?

Mild growing pains are not dangerous, but not all types of leg pain in children are growing pains. Sometimes leg pain may be caused by conditions that can be treated. You should consult your child's doctor if you're concerned about your child's leg pain or the pain is:

  • Still present in the morning
  • Severe enough to interfere with your child's usual activities
  • Only in one leg
  • Located in the joints
  • Related to an injury
  • Accompanied by other signs or symptoms, such as swelling, redness, tenderness, fever, limping, rash, loss of appetite, weakness or fatigue

One of the most common conditions for nighttime leg pain in children is restless leg syndrome.

If your child’s doctor suspects this illness, your child may be referred to a neurologist or a sleep medicine specialist.

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