It would start with a mild ache and gradually worsen to a deep throb, forcing me to rub my shin with my other foot, doing what I could to stop the pain. I remember this pain like it was yesterday. When I was younger I used to frequently wake up, howling in pain and clutching my shins. My mom would cuddle me, place warm cloths on my legs and rub them in attempt to comfort me. I remember trips to several doctors; my mother constantly searching for new opinions, but without fail was always told that I suffered from “growing pains”. Does this sound familiar?
My mother never really accepted my given diagnosis because all children grow, but not all children experience pain. The reality is that growing pains are real and affect about 20% of children (numbers vary depending on which study you read).
Growing Pain Has Nothing to Do with Growth
Growing pains are essentially pains in the leg muscles (not the joints), experienced frequently or infrequently, in children aged 2-12 years of age. Pain generally occurs at night. Nobody fully understands why they happen, but one thing is clear: they have nothing to do with growth. The term “growing pains” first came to fruition in the 1800’s, but since then medical professionals have realized that the pain doesn’t correspond to a period of rapid growth. Unfortunately, the name stuck. I’d prefer to call it “non-inflammatory pre-pubescent nocturnal leg pain syndrome”, but I guess “growing pains” is faster and easier to say.
The most accepted cause of growing pains is muscle fatigue from over-activity. This theory meshes with parental observations that growing pains are often worse on nights after sports practices or long periods spent walking or running. In my profession we also correlate growing pains with feet that aren’t aligned and supported properly. Poor foot alignment and function cause instability of the feet during weight bearing activities and can be a significant cause of growing pains in children, particularly in children who have very flat feet, ankles which roll inward and are very flexible. This causes uneven weight bearing through the foot as well as misalignment of joints further up the body, causing muscle strain.
Growing pains do tend to run in families. This holds true with my own family. My husband and I both experienced growing pains when we were children and our children have shared this same experience (that’s how we know when they have failed to listen to their “foot specialist” parents and chose to wear shoes which are less than suitable. See, mom always does know best!).
Symptoms of Growing Pains and Treatment
Growing pains is characterized by aching or throbbing pain in one or both legs at night. There is no swelling, not visible sign of injury, no pain when touched and does not cause your child to limp. If your child wakes up complaining of aching, throbbing legs, try the following to soothe his or her discomfort:
• Apply warm cloths or a heating pad to the aching area. Remove once your child has fallen asleep.
• Have your child get up and walk
• Rub your child’s legs with a soothing cream
• Have your child stretch the muscles in their leg
• If all else fails, try giving your child a pain reliever. Offer your child ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
• To prevent growing pains, have your child wear supportive shoes, especially with increased activity.
If your child experiences growing pains, make an appointment with a Chiropodist, who will determine if your child has a foot problem which may be causing his or her night time pain, and will discuss appropriate and effective treatment options. No more sleepless nights for either of you!
Cristol Smyth, D.Ch.