I’m lucky: When I hear the phrase “growing pains,” I think of Kirk Cameron, not night aches. I never suffered from growing pains as a child, and as far as I can tell, my 2-year-old doesn’t have them yet, either.
So sometimes I wonder: Are growing pains real? If so, what causes them? And how do I make sure my kid never has them? Because I really don’t need another reason for screamy 3 a.m. wake-ups.
Growing pains are real – in fact, they’re pretty common. Estimates vary, but one Australian study found that as many as 37 percent of 4- to 6-year-olds experience these recurring aches, which typically afflict a child’s lower limbs in the afternoon or at night. Bizarrely, though, growing pains actually have nothing to do with growing. And while they are nothing to worry about and usually disappear by the age of 14, growing pains can be confused with more serious health problems, so it’s good to know what they are and what they aren’t.
The term “growing pains” first appeared in a book penned in 1823 by a French doctor, but since then physicians have realized that the peak of these pains, which is at around age 6, doesn’t correspond to a period of rapid growth. A quarter of a person’s total growth actually happens during puberty, so it’s unlikely that growth has anything to do with growing pains, at least directly.
How frequently kids experience growing pains varies. Some never get them, others get them five times a year, and a handful of poor souls have them every night. But timing-wise, there are a few general rules. First, growing pains usually first appear during the preschool years. “If a child is 8 and all of a sudden has pain at night, it is not growing pains,” explains Barbara Ostrov, a pediatric rheumatologist at Penn State University. Second, growing pains only happen in the afternoon or at night, so kids who complain of pain during the day or who wake up stiff or sore in the morning are almost certainly not experiencing growing pains. Most of the time, the pains disappear by around age 14, but some kids will have them throughout their teenage years.
Growing pains are “bilateral,” too, in that they typically affect both sides of the body. This doesn’t mean that both sides have to hurt every time – the right leg might hurt one night, and a few days later the left one will act up – but kids who only ever get pains on one side probably aren’t having growing pains. And growing pains aren’t visible. Your kid might be screaming his head off about his shin, but you should never actually see anything wrong with his shin. If you do – if you see redness or swelling or bruising, for instance – you should take your little one to the doctor, pronto.
Even today, no one is sure what produces growing pains, but there are several theories backed by (limited) research, and together they suggest that growing pains might have a range of physiological causes.
One possibility is that kids who get growing pains have abnormally low pain thresholds. Growing pains could in part be the result of overactivity, too. This theory meshes with parental observations that growing pains are often worse on nights after sports practices.
Finally, some doctors have pointed out that growing pains are, for some reason, more common in emotionally unstable children. In a 1951 paper, for instance, researchers noted that kids with growing pains were “frequently irritable, nervous, afraid of the dark.” The implication seems to be that growing pains are a reflection of emotional problems or perhaps even caused by them, but it’s hard to identify the chicken and the egg here: I would be nervous and afraid of the dark, too, if nightfall brought extreme pain.
Parents who are worried about their kids may want to ask for lab tests like X-rays and blood tests to rule out other problems, but the vast majority of time, growing pains are growing pains – they’re harmless.