Growing Pains are Poorly Understood

by | What We're Talking About

Growing pains usually affect children between the ages of three and five, and then again in the pre-teen years, though for some children they can continue into adolescence. You may have felt them yourself or observed them in your child if you’re a parent – usually they’re experienced as aches and pains in the legs, often around the calf and thigh. Frequently they’re worse in the evening and can come and go over weeks and months – which makes it difficult to pin down what’s causing them.

The symptoms of growing pains include:

  • Muscular aches and pains are felt in both legs – typically in the calf, behind the knee and in the front of the thigh.
  • Moving the legs does not make the pain better or worse, which shows that the joints are not affected.
  • The pain comes and goes, occurring perhaps every night for a week or so, or a few times a week, or only occasionally.
  • The onset of pain is around the late afternoon or evening.
  • The pain is worse during the night, particularly when the child is supposed to be going to sleep.
  • The pain may be severe enough to wake the child from sleep.
  • The pain is gone by morning.
  • The pain doesn’t cause a limp or make it hard to run and play normally.
  • Occasionally, the muscles of the arms may be affected as well.
  • The child may also complain of headaches.

As the name suggests, you might think that this pain is caused by a growing body – things like bones getting bigger during a growth spurt. But in fact, bones grow very slowly, and their growth doesn’t typically cause pain. In a recent review of 145 studies, researchers from Sydney considered the evidence around growing pains and what we understand about them scientifically.

They found that while up to a third of children will be diagnosed with ‘growing pains’ at some point, how the diagnosis gets made is somewhat arbitrary. Because we don’t fully understand its causes, the label of growing pains is given only after other conditions are ruled out – things like infections, flat feet or even juvenile arthritis. The researchers warn doctors against jumping to conclusions about a diagnosis of growing pains given how little we still understand about it. Australian health authorities recommend heat treatments (like warm baths and heat packs), paracetamol and simple reassurance from parents that the pain should go away by the next day.


Department of Health, Victoria: Growing pains. Retrieved 3/8/2022