Growing pains is a common term used to describe pain in the limbs. They can be achey or throbbing and nearly always appear on both sides of the body. They’re most common in young children. In fact, between 10 and 35 percent of children have growing pains at least once. One study showed that nearly 37 percent of young children between ages 4 and 6 experience growing pains.
But what are growing pains and can they be treated through physical therapy?
What Are Growing Pains?
According to Dr. T at Teasel Chiropractic Clinic, “Growing pains are a real thing. Yes. Yes, definitely. Can that be an actual diagnosis? You know, it seems like there's an ICD 10 diagnosis for just about anything these days, but I don't think that that would be something that's clinically diagnosed unless you dig a little bit deeper and find something misaligned with us.”
Believe it or not, growing pains aren’t actually associated with growing. They just commonly occur at an age when children are growing quickly. Back in the 1930s and 40s, doctors thought that these pains were the cause of the bones growing faster than the tendons. Today, we know this is not true, but doctors are not sure of the cause. One popular theory suggests that the pain occurs on days when the child has increased activity and the muscle tension and pain results from overuse.
Since growing pains aren’t related to growth, they can occur in adults. Growing pains may be related to restless leg syndrome, a condition that normally only affects older adults.
Are There Good and Bad Growing Pains?
According to Dr. T, “[Growing pains] can be anywhere, especially where there's long bones where they have those growth plates major support, foundational bones, like the pelvis things of that sort that's where most people experience those types of growing pains.”
So, it’s not unusual for growing pains to appear in these areas, and they don’t mean that you’re still growing. A more likely cause is the overuse of muscles, which can happen to anyone at any age.
Growing pains occur mostly in the legs and can affect the calves, shins, thighs, and even behind the knee. Sometimes, growing pains occur in the arms, but these are almost always accompanied by leg pain as well. They are intermittent and usually appear late in the day or at night. Growing pains usually last about a half-hour, though they can last several hours. Pain can be mild or severe. Some kids have growing pains occasionally, with long periods of pain relief in between, but other kids experience chronic pain daily.
When Should Parents Be Concerned About Growing Pains?
Growing pains are usually harmless, but in some cases, they can be an indication of an underlying problem. One sign that something else might be going on is if the pain only appears on one side of the body.
Dr. T relates the following story about a patient experiencing growing pains:
There was an 11-year-old boy whose mom brought him in. I guess you can't, I wouldn't quite say they were saying it's growing pains, but you know, at that stage, at that age, oh, you know, he was starting to complain a little bit about being in some pain, a little bit of discomfort in his back.
And you know, after doing a little physical examination palpation, it's like, yeah, he definitely … might have something going on here. I took some x-rays and definitely found [a] nice S-shaped scoliosis curvature. And through … that, we're then able to mobilize and start working on that way.
His pain went away relatively quickly, as opposed to if they let it go longer [and it would] start to develop and lock up or get worse.”
If your child is having pain that is persistent or doesn’t go away by the morning, the pain may be more than growing pains or muscle fatigue. See a doctor if your child has joint pain, pain that interferes with normal activities, pain related to an injury or stress, or pain accompanied by redness, swelling, fever, weakness, or rash.
Can a Chiropractor Help with Growing Pains?
According to Dr. T:
It really depends. It can be pretty limited to pretty useful. If … there's just kind of general growing pains, like you know, in, … the femurs [and] the legs, ... as long as everything's normal, the growth plates are normal, joints are normal. It just kind of is a … natural thing that has to take its course. However, if… the growing itself is starting to cause distortions of the spine or they have some pelvic discomfort, which is pretty common in adolescents, then you know, some mobilizations and manipulations can definitely help with that and ease the stress.
A chiropractor may be able to help your child with growing pains, depending on the cause. Where chiropractors can really help is if the pain has a deeper cause. If pain is ongoing and doesn’t resolve quickly or it interferes with regular activity, seeing a chiropractor can help get to the root of the problem. They will examine the spine to see if anything required adjustment and can help make sure the child gets the best treatment possible.
There are some effective home remedies for growing pains, too. Long-acting pain relievers can help children sleep through the night when the pain gets particularly bad. If your child has flat feet, a supportive insert might also help. Sometimes, rubbing the child’s legs helps, as does a warm bath or heating pad.
Although there is no specific treatment for growing pains, it helps to remember that they don’t last forever. The pain becomes less intense for most children after a year or so and eventually disappears completely. Growing pains are not linked to any serious diseases or disabilities later in life, either. That said, other conditions that cause similar pain can turn into something more serious if left untreated, which is why it’s important to get any lingering or substantial pain checked out by a doctor.