What are growing pains, and what causes them? What new research says.

Is there a connection with migraine?

Growing pains can keep some kids up at night. But what causes them? (Getty)
Growing pains can keep some kids up at night. But what causes them? (Getty)

Growing pains are a common part of childhood, but sometimes they can cause stress for kids — and their parents.

One is Chad Montgomery, whose 6-year-old son has been experiencing the pains lately. "He is very sensitive to things he doesn't understand with his body," Montgomery tells Yahoo Life. "Growing pains have been scary for him when he doesn't understand why his legs have suddenly started to hurt."

Veronica Thompson tells Yahoo Life that her 4-year-old daughter "always complained about the pain in her shins, below her knees." But, she says, "it came to a point where she didn't want to walk anymore because of that pain." Thompson ended up taking her to the pediatrician, who recommended warm compresses, which she says helped.

Fellow parent Mark Joseph tells Yahoo Life that his 5-year-old daughter has been having growing pains since age 3, and they've been "quite challenging" for the family. "She wakes up in the middle of the night, crying in pain," he says. "Sometimes, she could not express what she felt as it was too much to bear. As a parent, watching her suffer like this was incredibly distressing."

Kris McCormick tells Yahoo Life that her 3-year-old has also struggled with intense growing pains. "He’d wake up in the middle of the night screaming and holding his legs in pain," she says. McCormick says the experience "frightened us both," until she learned to help her son manage the pain.

An estimated 50% of children experience growing pains at some point. But, despite how common they are, there's a lot of mystery surrounding this health condition. Here's what you need to know about growing pains, plus how to help your child get relief.

What are growing pains, exactly?

"Growing pains" is a term used to describe leg pains and soreness that happen to kids, typically at night, Dr. Danelle Fisher, a pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. The condition usually happens between the ages of 3 and 12, according to Nemours.

"It usually happens in healthy kids, and typically they complain in the evening or it wakes them up from sleep," Fisher says. Symptoms can include pain, usually in the lower leg, and it may be felt behind the knee, per Fisher.

Why do kids seem to get these at night? It may simply be that they're more distracted during the day and don't notice them as much then, Dr. Gary Reschak, a pediatrician at Northwestern Medicine Huntley Hospital, tells Yahoo Life. Also, Fisher points out, growth hormone is emitted when kids are asleep. "You grow when you sleep," Fisher says. "The bones are just more active at night." That overnight growth, she explains, could increase the risk of growing pains.

Experts share tips for soothing aching legs. (Getty)
Experts share tips for soothing aching legs. (Getty)

There's a lot of mystery around growing pains, even in the medical community

Overall, the cause of growing pains is "unknown," Reschak says. "Some studies suggest there may be some relation to overuse of the limbs, but there is no consensus," he adds.

Fisher agrees. "The studies just aren't super-conclusive," she says. However, she points out, "everyone has different pain thresholds," and that may play a role in why some kids feel these pains more than others.

In September 2023, new research published in the journal Headache suggested a link between growing pains and migraine. A headache clinic studied 100 children and adolescents — half of whom had growing pains — born to mothers with migraine. Of the 78 patients still participating in the study five years later, 76% of those with growing pains also also headaches, compared to 22% of those who had not experienced growing pains. Growing pains persisted in 14% of patients who had them at the start of the study, and also appeared in 39% of the control group, who had not previously had them.

“In families of children with growing pains, there is an increased prevalence of other pain syndromes, especially migraine among parents,” the authors wrote. “On the other hand, children with migraine have a higher prevalence of growing pains, suggesting a common pathogenesis; therefore, we hypothesized that growing pains in children are a precursor or comorbidity with migraine.”

How to help your child with growing pains

Growing pains tends to come in waves, Reschak says. "There will be periods where they occur almost nightly, followed by months without any pain," he shares. "It can last for years before the pain finally resolves completely and stops recurring."

If your child is uncomfortable, Reschak says you can give them over-the-counter ibuprofen or acetaminophen. "Gentle massage of the area has been helpful," he says, noting that there's "no need" for your child to take it easy or rest when they have growing pains.

Fisher says she usually recommends that her patients take ibuprofen, because it has some anti-inflammatory mechanisms, along with applying a heating pad to the area.

When should you call the doctor about growing pains?

If your child seems otherwise healthy but experiences the occasional pain, Fisher says you should be just fine to help treat their discomfort at home with heat and ibuprofen. "Every kid can have a one-off with pain once in a while," she says. But, if the pain is persistent or it really bothers your child, she suggests calling your pediatrician. "We just want to make sure we're not missing other causes of the pain," she says.

This article was originally published on Jan. 25, 2023 and has been updated.