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Are Growing Pains Real?

Boy gets leg examined

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Key Takeaways

  • The term “growing pains” may not actually have anything to do with growth.
  • A new study shows the medical community has no specific criteria for a diagnosis of growing pains.
  • The aches and pains may be the result of overuse or even a Vitamin D deficiency.

If your child has unexplained aches and pains, you may have chalked it up to "growing pains." Turns out, that term may not accurately describe what's going on. A new study, published in Pediatrics, finds there’s no exact definition; in fact, “growing pains” isn’t even the best term to use. It may not even be related to growth at all.

Research shows up to 50% of children have hurts classified as growing pains. For some kids it can mean leg pain; for others, it can mean soreness in their arms.

“What [this study] found was that the description of growing pains was varied...There was no definitive criteria that established the diagnosis, or that was used to make the clinical diagnosis,” explains Carlos Uquillas, MD, a pediatric sports medicine specialist and pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute. “There’s just a lot of inconsistency in terms of how this term was used and what it’s actually referring to,” he notes.

With no consistent definition, it’s hard for parents and even medical professionals to know what to call the pains kids experience.

What Are Growing Pains?

The term “growing pains” was first coined in 1823, and it was used to describe musculoskeletal pain kids experienced in early childhood. People started to assume the kids had pains because their bones were growing faster than their tendons were growing.

The term grew in popularity and usage in society and in the medical community.

“Growing pains are described as an ache or a throbbing pain, usually in the legs, less commonly in the arms,” says Dr. Uquillas. “It’s pains that are usually felt towards the end of the day, early evening, late afternoon, [and] sometimes at night,” he adds.

Kids commonly have these pains between the ages of 3 and 12. Studies have found that low Vitamin D levels can cause muscular aches that are considered growing pains. Experts also say increased activity or overuse, not growth, can lead to pain.

Daniel Ganjian, MD

It’s not associated with periods of rapid growth. That’s why it’s a misnomer to say growing pains. And often times the pain is not at sites of growth.

— Daniel Ganjian, MD

“It’s not associated with periods of rapid growth. That’s why it’s a misnomer to say growing pains. And often times the pain is not at sites of growth,” explains Daniel Ganjian, MD, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center.

The achy or crampy feelings can surround the knees and be in the thighs or calves. The pain can come on suddenly and be so intense it causes some children to cry. In extreme situations, experts say kids’ sleep can be interrupted. The pains themselves are very real; the problem is that growing pains is not the most accurate name for them.  Doctors say the term is often used in the absence of other explanations.

“It’s a very vague term. I think the reason it’s called growing pains is more [that there] hasn’t really been a lot of information about the disease or the condition,” Dr. Uquillas states.

Are Growing Pains a Diagnosis?

Researchers from the University of Sydney examined the results of 147 scientific studies and diagnostic systems to find out how growing pains are medically defined. Only 50% of the studies showed that pain was in the lower limbs. Slightly less than half said kids had the pain at night; 42% had continual pain. More than 80% of the studies didn’t mention the child’s age to help define growing pains. Maybe most surprising, 93% of them didn’t even mention the pains happening because of growth.

It boils down to the fact that medically, there’s no consensus or agreement on what leads to a child being diagnosed with growing pains.

Carlos Uquillas, MD

The benefit of a study like this is it shows us that we really have to be careful how we’re using that term because it’s not a distinct diagnosis or pathology that we’re looking at.

— Carlos Uquillas, MD

“There really is no pathology or diagnostic set of criteria that we can say, you know you have to meet X, Y, or Z to have growing pains,” says Dr. Uquillas. “The benefit of a study like this is it shows us that we really have to be careful how we’re using that term because it’s not a distinct diagnosis or pathology we’re looking at.”

Other research supports these findings. In fact, parents often say their kids have growing pains although they may have symptoms of a different condition.

“The problem with the name growing pains is that it’s variable in what it means, it’s vague, and then it’s contradictory,” Dr. Ganjian notes. “We don’t recommend using that name. in fact, the better terms to use are nocturnal pains of childhood or recurring limb pains of childhood,” he states.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

When your child is complaining of achiness and pain in their legs, doctors recommend taking inventory of what they’ve been doing. Have they been more active than usual—running, jumping, extensive movement? The pain could be a result of the added activity. If the aches resolve by morning, parents are typically looking at an instance of overuse.

However, if other symptoms develop, it could be the result of a more serious condition. Parents should know what to look for.

“Worrisome signs or red flags are unexplained fevers, weight loss, decreased activity, [or] this pain is persistent…or increasing,” explains Dr. Ganjian. He also says if the pain happens during the day or interferes with your child’s regular activities, you should take note.

You also want to reach out to your pediatrician if your child has swelling of the joints, redness around a joint or difficulty bending it, or pain just in the upper extremities. Experts say trauma, infection, and stress fractures can also be causes of the pain.

If your child is having any discomfort that concerns you, reach out to your healthcare professional. Doctors will typically perform x-rays, blood tests, and other exams to determine if anything more serious is going on.

“When you’re told that your kid has growing pains, I think it’s important to ask a few questions to make sure it truly is just this misnomer as opposed to any other condition,” Dr. Uquillas advises.

How Can I Ease My Child's Pain?

If you’ve taken your child to the doctor and all of the x-rays and tests are clear, or you’ve decided to take care of your child at home, you can try to alleviate their pain. Ibuprofen and acetaminophen can help with the achiness. Warm compresses, heating pads, and massages are other ways to soothe the pain. Stretching those hurting muscles can also help.

Although there is confusion around the term "growing pains," doctors say just having the pain is not a cause for alarm.

“It’s a very benign condition,” notes Dr. Uquillas. “I don’t think parents need to be too concerned about being given that diagnosis. The term itself may be a misnomer but the diagnosis is very real and the pain that the kid is experiencing is very real,” he concludes.

What This Means For You

Society commonly uses the term “growing pains” to address a variety of childhood aches and pains. According to a new study out of Australia, there are no set medical criteria to lead to a diagnosis of growing pains. This helps parents have a better understanding of potential causes of their child’s aches and pains, and when to seek medical help for anything more serious.

8 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Vehapoglu A, Turel O, Turkmen S, et al. Are growing pains related to vitamin d deficiency? Efficacy of vitamin d therapy for resolution of symptoms. Med Princ Pract. 2015;24(4):332-338. doi:10.1159%2F000431035

  3. American College of Rheumatology. Growing pains.

  4. Pavone V, Vescio A, Valenti F, Sapienza M, Sessa G, Testa G. Growing pains: What do we know about etiology? A systematic review. World J Orthop. 2019;10(4):192-205. doi:10.5312%2Fwjo.v10.i4.192

  5. West Tennessee Healthcare. What exactly are growing pains?.

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  8. Lehman PJ, Carl RL. Growing pains. Sports Health. 2017;9(2):132-138. doi:10.1177%2F1941738117692533

By LaKeisha Fleming
LaKeisha Fleming is a prolific writer with over 20 years of experience writing for a variety of formats, from film and television scripts, to magazines articles and digital content. She has written for CNN, Tyler Perry Studios, Motherly, Atlanta Parent Magazine, Fayette Woman Magazine, and numerous others. She is passionate about parenting and family, as well as destigmatizing mental health issues. Her book, There Is No Heartbeat: From Miscarriage to Depression to Hope, is authentic, transparent, and providing hope to many.Visit her website at www.lakeishafleming.com.