Symptoms of Growing Pains in Kids

A Pediatrician Explains How to Spot and Treat Growing Pains

A boy clutching his leg in pain after an accident
Mieke Dalle/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Q. I have a son who is four years old and his legs have really been hurting him. They hurt at all different times. I have given him Tylenol, Motrin, Advil, warm baths with lavender, massage, and nothing seems to help. He hasn't been sick or running a temperature. Please help! —Anna; Sacramento, CA

A. Four years old is a prime age at which many children begin to have growing pains, so that may be the cause—especially since he hasn't been sick and hasn't had a fever.

What Growing Pains Are

Growing pains are pains in muscles or bones and they tend to occur when children experience rapid growth. Children who have growing pains typically have pain in their legs either late in the day or in the middle of the night. These pains can be particularly bad after a day of intense physical activity, but it isn't always known what causes them.

Children who have growing pains usually do not have any other symptoms, such as weight loss, limping, fever, or joint swelling, and the pain shouldn't limit his activity.

Growing pains also commonly occur:

  • in both boys and girls
  • in both legs
  • in the front of the thigh, in the calf muscle (the back of the lower leg), in the muscles in the back of the knee, and in the heel of the foot
  • in children between the ages of three and five and between the ages of eight and 12 
  • in more than 30 percent of children

How to Treat Growing Pains in Children

If you are able to treat the pain when it occurs and your son is then fine for some time until the pain begins again, then that can be normal, depending on how often it is happening.

 Here are some treatments that might help:

  • If growing pains are causing leg pain in your child, then massaging the area tends to help, whereas if there was an injury or another medical condition causing the pain, touching or massaging the area would likely make the pain worse. 
  • It may help to give him ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) in the evening whenever he has had a very active day (like after soccer practice) to see if that keeps the pain from starting that night. You shouldn't do that every night or even on most nights, though, without talking to your pediatrician first.
  • You could try icing the areas that are painful.
  • If his pain seems to be more intense on days when he exercises, you might consider limiting the duration or the intensity of his physical activity a little bit and encouraging him to rest more to see if that helps. 

What If It's Not Growing Pains?

It's a little unclear what you mean when you say 'nothing seems to help.'

If you mean that your treatments help reduce the pain temporarily, but the pain always comes back at some point, then that is to be expected when it comes to growing pains. 

But if you mean that no treatments help even slightly, including the ones in the bullet points above, then you likely need to see your kid's pediatrician for an evaluation. Although growing pains are often blamed for leg pain, there are other conditions that can cause leg pain, and your son may need some blood tests or an x-ray just to be sure that it really is growing pains. You and the doctor may want to rule out other possible causes, including infections, stress fractures, tumors, and osteochrondritis dissecans (OCD)—a condition that causes loose cartilage and its supporting bone, most often in the knee joint (but it can also occur in the elbow or ankle).


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