Growing pains – Do they exist?

The term ‘growing pains’ has been in use for over 200 years, and was first mentioned by French physician Marcel Duchamp in 1823. Despite up to 1/3 of children being diagnosed with growing pains, there is still uncertainty about what it actually is.

Defining growing pains

A 2022 study from the University of Sydney, published in the journal Pediatrics, looked at how growing pains was defined in the literature. They searched over 3000 papers and found that the definitions in the literature were vague, variable and even contradictory. Less than 10% of the papers even mentioned anything about growth.

For the most part though, growing pains is a benign condition, typically referring to childhood pain that is usually felt on one or both legs, and most often at night. It is a diagnosis of exclusion. In other words, if the symptoms can’t be defined as a specific disorder or problem, then term growing pains might be used.

What causes growing pains

There are many theories on the cause of growing pains including anatomical (muscles, joints and nerves), psychological, metabolic, vascular and Vitamin D deficiency. Finally, the fatigue theory proposes that an increase in physical activity leads to growing pains caused by both muscular and skeletal fatigue. Furthermore, some studies propose a relation to restless legs syndrome. However, all of these theories are speculations as none of them has been substantiated by research.

Is it really painful to grow?

Chiropractor and researcher Dr Lise Haebaek has published a 2024 study that looked at this question. In total 777 children aged between 3-6 years old were followed over a 30-month period. At baseline, the parents completed a questionnaire about demographic and socioeconomic factors, health status, and more. The children were measured  at 6-, 18- and 30-months follow-up.

While many of the children did experience pains that might be described as ‘growing pains’ there was no statistical correlation with rapid growth. The researchers concluded that the term was a misnomer.

What can parents do?

If your child is experiencing intermittent leg pain, there’s a few things you can do to help:

Observe how they walk

Does you child have a limp or unusual gait. It might be they are just stiff after activity, but if this is consistent or present often, then getting a professional opinion is warranted.

What’s their posture like?

Stand behind you child to check their posture. Are the hips even? Also look at their shoes – are they wearing out unevenly? Significant postural distortion is an indicator to see a chiropractor.

Start with home care

Try some gentle home massage, anti-inflammatory creams, heat packs, rest and magnesium supplementation. These are often helpful in mild cases.

If in doubt or if symptoms persist

Call to make an appointment. It helps to have an accurate diagnosis, and your chiropractor can help with this. Often spinal imbalance, or other musculoskeletal and developmental problems with the hips or lower limb can cause ‘growing pain-like’ issues. Fortunately these typically respond well to care.