Although metaphorically attributable to everything from a corporation’s disorganization to a teenager asserting her independence, “growing pains” are an actual physical occurrence that is thought to affect nearly 40 percent of children between three and five years old and between eight and 12 years old. But every pain a child in those age ranges experiences is not necessarily growing pains. To a child, pain is pain, and to parents, a child’s pain is a their pain. How can you tell what’s a growing pain and what’s something more serious?
What Exactly Is a “Growing Pain”?
Pediatricians and researchers largely agree that nothing is truly growing during a growing pain. The term was first used in a book by the French doctor, Duchamp in 1823. Physicians have long realized that the pains don’t occur during a period of rapid growth, but the name and the pain it was associated with had already found a home in common language. “Noninflammatory pain syndrome of early childhood” was floated as a possible replacement somewhere along the way, which helps explain why we still call it growing pains.
Many things about growing pains remain a mystery, but what is known is that growing pains occur in the muscles, not joints or bones. Even though late afternoon, early evening and overnight are usually when growing pains make themselves known, they are often a delayed reaction to extreme physical activity earlier in the day – such as after a field day at school. Pain is typically felt in the front of thighs, in the calves or behind the knees.
What Pains Should You Be Concerned About?
Pain that might be something more serious includes pain in the joints (elbows, knees, shoulders, etc.) and swollen, red, tender or warm joints. Growing pains are usually bilateral; your child would feel pain on both sides of the body, maybe one leg today, the other leg tomorrow, or both are painful today. Growing pains are also invisible – muscles are hurting (maybe from overuse) inside the body. Bruises, redness and swelling in one area only do not indicate growing pains.
The timing and frequency of pain are also ways to distinguish growing pains from something more serious. The age groups mentioned above are fairly standard for growing pains, as are the times of the day when pain is experienced. A nine-year old child who has pain in the morning is probably not experiencing growing pains, especially if he or she didn’t experience growing pains as a preschooler.
Consult your pediatrician for the best treatment options if your child experiences growing pains. Often ibuprofen or acetaminophen; gentle massage and gentle stretching; and a heating pad can ease the pain.
Symptoms that are not associated with growing pains that might warrant a call to your pediatrician include:
- Pain that occurs in the morning
- Joint swelling or redness
- Injury-related pain
- Fever, weakness, fatigue
- Unexplained rashes
When in doubt, consult with a health care practitioner. A child’s pain should never be ignored, but armed with the right information, you can rest a little easier knowing that growing pains are sometimes just a part of growing up.