Monday Medical: Getting through growing pains |

Monday Medical: Getting through growing pains

Susan Cunningham
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

If your child is complaining of aches and pains, you may chalk it up to growing pains. But what exactly are growing pains? And how do you know if something more serious is going on?

Dr. Patrick Grathwohl, a pediatrician in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, outlines what you need to know about growing pains below.

What are growing pains?

The condition is used to describe children with limb pain, usually in their legs, who don’t otherwise have musculoskeletal issues. Why these pains happen isn’t clear.

“Studies show that anywhere from 10% to 20% of children will have growing pains at some point, with girls being affected slightly more than boys,” Grathwohl said. “There is often a family history as well.”

Are growing pains caused by growing?

While these pains do occur in children who are growing, the act of growing does not seem to be the cause.

“The pain does not coincide with periods of rapid growth, and it does not occur at sites of growth, or growth plates,” Grathwohl said.

It can be helpful to know that while growing pains are uncomfortable, they don’t affect a child’s growth.

What do they feel like?

The pains are described as an aching or throbbing sensation, and usually occur late in the day or at night. Sometimes, they’re strong enough to wake a child from sleep.

“Pain is typically in the lower extremities, often in the thigh, calf or behind the knee or shins,” Grathwohl said. “The pain waxes and wanes, and can be severe.”

Growing pains, which are sometimes also experienced in the arms, can strike once a week and may persist for years. They first surface between the ages of 3 and 12, and usually resolve by the teenage years.

Do certain activities make them worse?

A busy, active day can bring on growing pains, and some experts theorize that growing pains might result from overuse due to running, climbing and jumping. But causes of growing pains are not clear, and Grathwohl doesn’t recommend limiting your child’s activity: Staying active is critical to overall health. If your child is limiting his or her activity due to pain, they should be evaluated by their primary care doctor.

How are growing pains treated?

The good news is that there is relief. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen, along with heat, stretching and massage, can help lessen discomfort and pain.

“We will typically educate and reassure the family once the diagnosis is made — acute pain relief can be obtained,” Grathwohl said.

And in some children, supplements can help.

“In children with low vitamin D, supplementation with vitamin D has demonstrated reduced growing pains,” Grathwohl said.

When should you see a doctor?

It may be helpful to see your health care provider initially, just to be sure what your child is experiencing is, in fact, growing pains.

“The diagnosis of growing pains is one of exclusion, meaning you have to consider and rule out other causes of limb pain,” Grathwohl said. “If a child has pain after a trauma or fall, if the pain is present during the day and not episodic, or if there is bruising or swelling, unexplained fever, weight loss or decreased activity, then the child should be evaluated by their primary care physician as these are likely not growing pains.”

If your child has been diagnosed with growing pains, but later experiences pain that continues into the next day or that causes him or her to limp, you should also see your health care provider.

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at

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