Are growing pains really a thing?

Many childhood discomforts or complaints are often flippantly chalked up to ‘growing pains’. But what are they and are they even real?

Growing pains are characterised by intermittent pain in the lower limbs.

Physiotherapist Ashleigh Mason says the pain occurs sporadically at night and typically resolves by morning.

“It also shouldn’t occur during activity or be related to activity, and shouldn’t be worsening over time,” Ashleigh says.

Often used to explain the unexplainable, Ashleigh says growing pains are easy to assume.

“While ‘growing pains’ is often inaccurately thrown around to describe any pain a child or adolescent experiences, this term actually describes a specific, benign syndrome,” she says.

But for such a common condition, the research on growing pains is inconsistent.

A recent review of medical literature by the University of Sydney noted there’s no consistent definition used for diagnosis.

An earlier study on the prevalence of growing pains recognised this inconsistency and used a chosen definition to find that 36.9 per cent of participants aged 4-6 experienced growing pains.

“There is no single diagnostic test for growing pains,” the study’s author, Dr Angela Evans, says.

“The inclusion criteria for diagnosis are intermittent pains in both legs that generally occur late in the day or at night.

“This sleep disturbance can be a real problem for both the child and parents.”

The cause of growing pains

There’s a range of stand-alone studies, but Dr Evans says there’s no consensus on the cause.

“Growing pains are still associated with frequent health professional consultations, yet the precise cause remains elusive,” she says.

They do, however, have a genetic tendency.

“We know that growing pains are strongly familial, with 70 per cent of affected children having a past affected parent or sibling,” Dr Evans says.

Another study found that children with growing pains had a decreased pain threshold, suggesting it’s a pain syndrome rather than a localised disorder.

Ashleigh says a child’s home, school, social life and stress can play a part.

“Psychosocial factors often get missed in most pain syndromes,” she says.

“Often, when the history and physical examination fits the classic description of growing pains, reassurance and education is the only treatment that is needed.

“But if there are psychosocial factors present, these need to be appropriately addressed.”

How to treat growing pains

It’s worth trying the classic heat packs and massage, but Dr Evans says stretching is the only proven treatment.

“The best evidence for management is muscle stretching (leg muscles), which needs to be the first treatment approach after a clear diagnosis,” she says.

An underlying condition or injury can be overlooked as growing pains, which is why Dr Evans says an accurate diagnosis is the key to treatment.

“If the child has atypical symptoms, such as persistent joint pain, it’s important to rule out serious conditions,” she says.

Throughout her years as a physiotherapist, Ashleigh has seen plenty of conditions mistaken for growing pains.

“I notice a lot of things get missed or passed on as growing pains without further investigation,” she says.

With an inconsistent definition, growing pains can be misdiagnosed or assumed without a professional’s opinion.

“If your child is experiencing any sort of musculoskeletal pain, consult your GP as well as the appropriate allied health professional, like a physio or podiatrist,” Ashleigh says.

Growing pains in adults

Sometimes, achy legs can be a symptom of something more than growing pains.

In this case, Ashleigh says some musculoskeletal conditions can return in adulthood.

“If something doesn’t get picked up, then a child may go back to sports and activities, where issues end up persisting,” Ashleigh says.

“If the underlying biomechanical cause isn’t addressed in childhood, these weaknesses can carry into adulthood and manifest as injuries or pain conditions.”

Dr Evans recognises growing pains can be mistaken for restless legs syndrome.

“These have often been confused with growing pains, however restless legs feature ‘motor restlessness’ where growing pains usually will not,” she says.

“Whilst growing pains are common and confined to childhood, the less frequent restless legs may persist into adult years.”

Written by Hayley Hinze.