Ask Dr. Marla: Are Growing Pains Real?

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Are growing pains real, and at what age are they likely to occur? How can you tell if they’re just growing pains or something more serious?

The term ‘growing pains’ has been used for almost 200 years, and yes, it is a real phenomenon. In fact, growing pains are said to be the most common form of recurrent musculoskeletal (meaning muscle and bone) pains in childhood. Some studies say that they are present in 10 to 20 percent of children between the ages of three and 12.
The typical case of growing pains occurs in a healthy, normal young child in the middle of the night, causing intense pain for 10 to 15 minutes. They usually occur in both legs, knees, calves, thighs or shins.
We don’t really know what causes these pains. Studies indicate that several factors, individually or in combination, might be responsible. These include mechanical factors, such as joint hypermobility and fl at feet, decreased pain thresholds, reduced bone strength, and emotional factors involving the patient’s family and other social stressors.
The correct diagnosis of growing pains requires seeing your doctor. A complete history of the pain will be taken. A physical examination is done as well. Your doctor will want to make sure there are no signals for alarm.
Pain that is unilateral (only affects one side), morning stiffness, joint swelling and symptoms such as fever, weight loss and malaise would all be a concern and would trigger an extended evaluation to exclude other more serious conditions. Once the diagnosis has been established, the management should be conservative; meaning occasional pain medication and even massage.

Published March 2010

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