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Growing pains: Fact or Myth?

They are a commonly known phenomenon but at some points in history growing pains have been dismissed as a myth. So do they exist? Our Paediatric Physiotherapist Beck Snowden explains...

Yes. Growing pains are real! They affect children during peak periods of growth, and are commonly seen in the during the pre-pubertal growth period of adolescence when our long bones are growing fastest. So what are they? And why do some kids get them and others not?

What are growing pains?

Growing pains are commonly found in places where muscles attach to bones, or what are called the 'apophysis' of the bone. Many of these large muscles (such as the quads, hamstrings and calves) join the bone near growth plates, which are busy, changing and somewhat delicate parts of the bones for increasingly strong muscles to be attached to. This pulling of muscles next to the growth plate can result in an overload in the bone and hence pain.

Children will commonly complain of pain in their hips, thighs, knees or shins in the evening, or wake with excruciating pain that doesn't seem to settle. They then often wake up in the morning like nothing happened! It is more common for them to report this pain after a busy day or weekend of activity. And they happen at night because that is when our metabolism is busy repairing, healing and growing!

Why do some kids get them and others not?

  • Growing pains are more commonly seen in children with stretchy ligaments (hypermobility). Because the their ligaments contribute less to the joint stability, their muscles have to work harder and therefore are more likely to cause increased load.
  • Some children have more muscular physiques and these strong muscles are sometimes too strong for their developing skeleton to cope with.
  • Some children are more active than others and the types of exercise they do may be more stressful to their body. The amount of repetitious activity can also be a factor.
  • Muscle imbalance is often a factor. If you are weak in one muscle group you will be more likely to get strong and tight in another.
  • Genetics. Yep. If mum or dad got them, the kids may too. That's because ligament stretchiness, muscularity and a tendency for increased activity all tend to be passed down the line!
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    How do we treat growing pains?

    It is important to do a thorough assessment of the child's biomechanics to understand why the child is getting pain. Once we have this information we can tailor a program that addresses any tightness and weakness to rectify the muscle imbalances. We can also advise on load management and exercise options to help prevent ongoing issues.

    In terms of managing that horrible pain in the night? Research still suggests Paracetmol, a hot pack and rubbing the painful area to be the best remedy. Your Physiotherapist may also recommend warm magnesium baths, which seem to help many patients (though the research is still out on this one).

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