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We talk a lot about chronic pain on the podcast, but sometimes the pain we deal with is not chronic or even problematic (though totally real and, well, painful!).
Whether experiencing growing pains first-hand or parenting a child going through them, growing pains are miserable. I remember them being so painful I thought there was something severely wrong with me (a scary thought for a child).
What Are Growing Pains?
Growing pains are a recurrent, painful sensation typical in children between 3 and 12 years old. Usually they affect the lower extremities (and sometimes the arms). Children typically feel growing pains in their shins, calves, or thighs, and usually on both sides at once.
Unlike most joint pain, growing pains are non-inflammatory and occur typically only in the soft tissues. The sensation can be described as throbbing muscle pain or intense leg cramps. These pains often come in the evening and throughout the night.
If you notice limping, swelling, rash, loss of appetite, or other symptoms, check with your pediatrician.
As always, if you’re unsure at all about what’s causing the problem, get medical advice right away.
What Causes Growing Pains?
Growing pains are extremely common, but physicians still don’t know what causes them. Despite their name, there is no evidence that they are related to growth spurts. A few theories have been suggested as potential causes, though.
First introduced in the 1950s, this theory suggests that a musculoskeletal problem (scoliosis, flat feet, etc.) causes growing pains. A 2008 review published in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research concludes that scientific evidence hasn’t been found to support this theory, but it does state that they could be a genetic syndrome.
This theory dates back to the 1800s and suggests that increased physical activity leads to growing pains in some children. Although scientific evidence has not been reached to support this claim, many parents report increased physical activity often leads to their child experiencing growing pains.
Lower Bone Density Theory
Additionally, a small 2005 study was conducted of children with growing pains looking at their bone density. Researchers concluded that children with a lower bone density (especially in the tibial region) paired with increased physical activity were at a higher risk.
When researchers found correlations between children with GP and migraines, they suspected the pain could have something to do with the sudden passage of fluid through the capillaries of the soft tissues. More research is needed, but this could be a promising direction.
This theory was first referenced in the 1950s and suggests that a child’s temperament and pain tolerance may have something to do with growing pains. In observational studies published in The Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, parents reported children with growing pains were more likely to have “negative or intense moods”—indicating that an emotional disturbance could factor into play here.
These are some theories, but what we do know is that growing pains typically subside with age. As a parent, growing pains are difficult to watch your child go through. Fortunately, they aren’t a chronic health concern to worry about.
6 Ways to Soothe Growing Pains Naturally
Growing pains are extremely uncomfortable for children and can leave parents feeling helpless. Luckily, there are several natural remedies for growing pains that really work!
Stretching and Massaging the Muscles
The 2008 article mentioned above states that one of the best ways to soothe growing pains is by stretching the quadriceps, hamstrings, and triceps, and massaging the muscles.
Obviously rubbing the muscles when pains strike can help immediately, but starting a pre-bed stretching routine might be a good idea for those that wake up in the middle of the night from growing pains. I pair this with whatever other remedies I have available and the combination usually does the trick.
Vitamin D plays a significant role in bone health, among many other processes in the body. A study from 2011 links low vitamin D levels with growing pains. In this study, only 6 percent of children experiencing growing pains had adequate vitamin D levels.
Spending time in the sun is my favorite way to improve vitamin D levels naturally. However, supplementing a healthy diet with vitamin D supplements is a more consistent way to make sure your child is getting enough to help with growing pains. I use this brand from Radiant Life or this brand with additional vitamin K for absorption. The added vitamin K is great for assisting the body in absorbing vitamin D.
Magnesium is another important mineral that impacts bones, joints, and muscles. It is also used to help the body absorb other vitamins like vitamin D. Magnesium is often used in Epsom salt baths and can help sore muscles, too.
For this reason, giving a child an Epsom salt bath or using an all-natural magnesium lotion before bed may help with growing pains. The added heat from a bath may also help soothe the discomfort.
Another way to relieve growing pains is to use a heating pad. Just like a warm bath, heat from a heating pad (or a homemade rice heat pack) helps soothe and relax muscle tension. Place a heat pack (on a low setting) on a child’s legs as they fall asleep. Once they fall asleep, be sure to remove the pack from their bed.
Bone broth is one of my favorite food sources of nutrients. It is a source of bio-available nutrients that help build strong bones and support muscle health, like calcium and magnesium. Also, its amino acid structure and high gelatin content enhance the absorption of nutrients from other foods.
Use this bone broth recipe in soups and stews to get kids to eat it without complaint.
Arnica is an herb used in salves and lotions to relieve sore muscles and to help with bruises. Because growing pains may be related to overworked muscles, using an arnica rub on a child’s legs could help ease the discomfort of growing pains.
Learn how to make an easy arnica salve, and rub it into a child’s legs (or arms). Pairing an arnica salve with a gentle massage before bed just might help you and your child get a full night’s sleep again!
Natural Pain Relievers
Many people will use an over the counter pain reliever, but I choose to avoid these when possible. Instead, I use natural pain relievers. There are many natural pain relievers to choose from:
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: anti-inflammatory and a good addition to the diet whether your child suffers from growing pains or not (read more here)
- Turmeric (Curcumin): has been used in ancient Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine for its anti-inflammatory properties
- Green Tea: also has anti-inflammatory properties as well as the ability to support joint health
- Pycnogenol (maritime pine bark): Similar to white willow bark (but safe for kids), this herb can help with inflammation as well as ADHD symptoms in boys.
- Capsaicin: The active ingredient in hot pepper, capsaicin when added to a cream or lotion can be a good topical pain reliever.
- Pain Relief Lotion Bars: I make these pain relief lotion bars using half as much menthol and essential oils (and omitting the arnica oil) for my kids when they get growing pains.
- Homeopathics: I use Genexa homeopathic pain remedy for my kids when they complain of growing pains. Learn more about homeopathic medicines in this post.
I have used many of these with success but your experience may be different since every person’s biochemistry is different. I recommend experimenting (with your pediatrician’s approval of course) to find what works for your child.
Growing Up Naturally
We don’t know definitively what causes growing pains, and that may mean that it’s likely a combination or a variety of things. Luckily there are many natural remedies for them, so you’re bound to find one or two that work. Let us know what you’ve tried!
This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Do your kids have growing pains? What works best for them?
- Evans, A. M. (2008). Growing pains: contemporary knowledge and recommended practice. Journal of Foot and Ankle Research, 1(1). doi:10.1186/1757-1146-1-4
- Evans, A. M., Scutter, S. D., Lang, L. M., & Dansie, B. R. (2006). “Growing pains” in young children: A study of the profile, experiences and quality of life issues of four to six year old children with recurrent leg pain. The Foot, 16(3), 120-124. doi:10.1016/j.foot.2006.02.006
- Friedland, O., Hashkes, P. J., Jaber, L., Cohen, H. A., Eliakim, A., Wolach, B., & Uziel, Y. (2005). Decreased bone speed of sound in children with growing pains measured by quantitative ultrasound. Journal of Rheumatology, 32(7), 1354-7.
- Kaspiris, A., & Zafiropoulou, C. (2009). Growing pains in children: Epidemiological analysis in a Mediterranean population. Joint Bone Spine, 76(5), 486-490. doi:10.1016/j.jbspin.2009.09.001
- Lehman, P. J., & Carl, R. L. (2017). Growing Pains. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, 9(2), 132-138. doi:10.1177/1941738117692533
- Oberklaid, F., Amos, D., Liu, C., Jarman, F., Sanson, A., & Prior, M. (1997). Growing Pains: Clinical and Behavioral Correlates in a Community Sample. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 18(2), 102-106. doi:10.1097/00004703-199704000-00005
- Qamar, S., Akbani, S., Shamim, S., & Kahn, G. (2011). Vitamin D levels in children with growing pains. Journal of the College of Physicians and Surgeons-Pakistan, 21(5), 284-7. doi:05.2011/JCPSP.284287
- Bost, J., Maroon, A., & Maroon, J. (2010). Natural anti-inflammatory agents for pain relief. Surgical Neurology International, 1(1), 80. doi: 10.4103/2152-7806.73804
- Trebatická, J., et al (2006). Treatment of ADHD with French maritime pine bark extract, Pycnogenol®. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 15(6), 329–335. doi: 10.1007/s00787-006-0538-3
- Uziel Y, Hashkes PJ. Growing pains in children. Pediatr Rheumatol Online J. 2007;5:5. Published 2007 Apr 19. doi:10.1186/1546-0096-5-5