Growing pains are a common cause of leg pain in children. These pains are muscle aches that can occur in the thighs, behind the knees, or the calves.
Other possible causes of leg pain that may be more serious can include juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), lupus, Lyme disease, and leukemia.
In this article, we look at what we commonly refer to as ‘growing pains,’ what they are, and how people can treat them at home. We also cover other possible causes of joint pains in children and when to see a doctor.
What are growing pains?
Growing pains typically occur in the leg muscles and behind the knees.
Research suggests that more than 30 percent of school children experience chronic musculoskeletal pain. In around half of these children, the pain is due to growing pains.
Growing pains most often occur during a child’s preschool and preteen years, and they usually disappear by their teenage years. These pains are harmless and are not a sign of a serious condition.
Growing pains typically occur in the thigh and calf muscles or behind the knees, but sometimes can also happen in the arms. Children with these types of youthful pains may experience cramps or aches that can range from mild to severe.
Characteristics of growing pains may include:
- they occur in the evening or night and typically resolving by morning
- they are severe enough to wake a child from sleep
- they usually affect both legs rather than one
- they happen intermittently or several nights in a row
- they are often accompanied by headaches or abdominal pain
People used to think that growing pains were the result of the bones growing during growth spurts. However, doctors no longer believe this to be the case, as there is no evidence that growth causes pain.
Growing pains may simply be aches that result from children running, jumping, and climbing while playing, during the day.
Growing pains may also be related to other factors, such as fatigue, restless leg syndrome, low pain tolerance, or even vitamin D deficiency.
How to ease growing pains
Bathing in warm water can help reduce aches and pains before bedtime.
There is no specific treatment for growing pains. However, the following home remedies can help ease a child’s discomfort:
- A warm bath. Bathing in warm water, especially before bedtime, can help reduce aches and pains and promote sleep.
- Massaging. Gently massaging or rubbing the affected area can make the child feel better. Merely holding or cuddling the child may also help.
- Stretching. Gently stretching the calves and thighs during the day may ease or prevent symptoms. However, stretching exercises may be challenging for younger children. Ask a doctor what types of exercises are best.
- Warmth. Try applying a heating pad or hot water bottle to the affected area. Make sure these are not too hot and take care to protect the child’s skin from burning. Do not use these items during sleep.
- Painkillers. Over-the-counter (OTC) medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can help relieve aches and pains on an occasional basis.
People should not give aspirin to children. Doctors do not recommend aspirin for children, as they have linked it with a rare but serious condition called Reye’s syndrome.
Other causes of joint pain in children
Joint pains in children can sometimes be a sign of a more serious underlying condition, including:
Juvenile idiopathic arthritis
If a child frequently complains of joint pain, then juvenile idiopathic arthritis or JIA may be the cause.
JIA can cause pain and swelling in one or more joints. Unlike growing pains, it can also affect a child’s movement or strength.
There are several different types of JIA and symptoms can vary, so it can be difficult for a doctor to diagnose. However, early diagnosis and treatment are vital because JIA can affect bone growth and lead to permanent complications.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), or lupus, is an autoimmune disorder that can affect nearly every organ in the body. Lupus is very uncommon in younger children, but becomes more common in the teenage years, especially in females.
Lupus causes many different symptoms including:
- tiredness that continues after resting
- pain, swelling, or stiffness in the joints
- skin rashes, often on or around the nose
- hair loss
Lupus is a long-term condition, and symptoms can range in their severity. However, early diagnosis and treatment can improve the outlook.
Insects called ticks can spread a bacterial infection known as Lyme disease. The ticks carry a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi that they pass onto people when they bite them. These ticks tend to live in grassy areas and woodlands in particular regions and feed on animals, such as mice and deer.
Symptoms of Lyme disease include:
- a circular rash around a tick bite, sometimes known as a bull’s-eye rash
- fever or chills
- joint or muscle pain
- facial paralysis
Anyone who lives or spends time in an area where Lyme disease occurs can become infected, but children who spend a lot of time playing outside are at greater risk.
To prevent Lyme disease, children should wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Parents or caregivers should also check the child’s whole body for tick bites after they have played outdoors.
Following a tick bite, it can take up to 3 weeks for the rash to appear. Joint pain can sometimes be the first and only symptom in children.
Early diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease are critical to prevent severe complications. Anyone who suspects an infected tick has bitten their child should see a doctor, as soon as possible.
Leukemia is a cancer of the blood that starts inside the bone marrow. It is the most common type of cancer in children. Leukemia can cause joint and bone pain, usually along with other symptoms.
The symptoms and their severity vary, according to the type of leukemia and can include:
- bleeding or bruising easily
- infections and recurring or persistent fevers
- abdominal pain
- swollen lymph nodes
- breathing difficulties
The treatment options and outlook also depend on the type of leukemia that a doctor diagnoses in a child.
When to see a doctor
Seek medical advice if joint pain persists or worsens.
Growing pains are a common cause of leg pains in children and usually disappear, as the individual gets older. However, if the pain is persistent, severe, or unusual, the child should see a doctor.
They should also consult a doctor if the joint pains occur alongside any of the following symptoms:
- swollen, red, or tender joints
- recent injury
- limping or trouble walking
- weight loss
- loss of appetite
- fatigue or weakness
The doctor will conduct a physical exam and may need to run tests to find the underlying cause.
Parents and caregivers frequently worry when children have pains in their legs and joints. Close to a third of school-aged children may have these types of pains, which usually get better on their own, and may be due solely to exercise and healthy playing.
If the pains are accompanied by any other symptoms or an adult is particularly concerned, they should consult a doctor for further investigation, as some pains may indicate a condition that needs medical intervention.