Your 8-year-old son wakes up crying in the night complaining that his legs are throbbing. You rub them and soothe him as much as you can, but you're uncertain about whether to give him any medicine or take him to the doctor.

Sound familiar? Your son is probably having growing pains, which about 25% to 40% of kids do. They usually strike during two periods: in early childhood among 3- to 5-year-olds and, later, in 8- to 12-year-olds.

Signs and Symptoms

Growing pains always concentrate in the muscles, rather than the joints. Most kids report pains in the front of their thighs, in the calves, or behind the knees. Joints affected by more serious diseases are swollen, red, tender, or warm — the joints of kids having growing pains look normal.

Although growing pains often strike in late afternoon or early evening before bed, pain can sometimes wake a sleeping child. The intensity of the pain varies from child to child, and most kids don't have the pains every day.

What Causes Them?

Bone growth hasn't been proved to cause pain. So "growing" pains might just be aches and discomfort from the jumping, climbing, and running that active kids do during the day. The pains can happen after a child has had a particularly athletic day.

Diagnosing Growing Pains

One symptom that doctors find most helpful in making a diagnosis of growing pains is how a child responds to touch while in pain. Kids who have pain from a serious medical cause don't like to be handled because movement can make the pain worse. But those with growing pains respond differently — they feel better when they're held, massaged, and cuddled.

Growing pains are what doctors call a diagnosis of exclusion. This means that other conditions will be ruled out before a diagnosis of growing pains is made. This usually is done by taking a medical history and doing a physical exam. In rare cases, blood tests and X-rays might be done before a doctor diagnoses growing pains.

Helping Your Child

Things that may help ease growing pains include:

  • massaging the area
  • stretching
  • placing a heating pad on the area
  • giving ibuprofen or acetaminophen 
    Do not give aspirin to a child or teen, as it has been linked to a rare but serious illness called Reye syndrome.

When to Call the Doctor

Call your doctor if any of these symptoms happen with your child's pain:

  • long-lasting pain, pain in the morning, or swelling or redness in one particular area or joint
  • pain associated with an injury
  • fever
  • limping
  • unusual rashes
  • loss of appetite
  • weakness
  • tiredness
  • unusual behavior

These signs are not related to growing pains and should be checked out by the doctor.

While growing pains aren't usually related to illness, they can upset kids — and parents. Because the aches are usually gone in the morning, parents sometimes think that a child faked the pains. But this usually isn't true. Instead, offer support and reassurance that growing pains will pass as kids grow up.

Back to Articles


Related Articles

Growth Plate Fractures

Injuries to growth plates, which produce new bone tissue and determine the final length and shape of bones in adulthood, must be treated so that bones heal properly.

Read More

What Is a Growth Disorder?

The other kids in the class have been getting taller and developing into young adults, but your child's growth seems to be lagging behind. Could a growth disorder be the cause?

Read More

Growth and Your 6- to 12-Year-Old

As kids grow from grade-schoolers to preteens, there continues to be a wide range of "normal" as far as height, weight, and shape.

Read More

Understanding Puberty

Puberty was awkward enough when you were the one going through it. So how can you help your kids through all the changes?

Read More

What a Pain! Kids and Growing Pains

Growing pains are for real. Usually they happen when kids are between the ages of 3 and 5 or 8 and 12.

Read More

Your Child's Growth

From the moment parents greet their newborn, they watch the baby's progress eagerly. But how can they tell if their child is growing properly?

Read More

Growth and Your 2- to 3-Year-Old

During the third year of life, toddlers are extremely active and mobile, and are learning in very physical ways.

Read More

Growth and Your 4- to 5-Year-Old

Kids who are 4 to 5 years old continue to learn in a very physical way, but are more focused than when they were younger.

Read More

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2020 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

Search our entire site.