“Mommy, I can't feel my legs," my three-year-old son said to me one night.
“What?!” I asked, trying to stay calm.
“I can’t feel my legs, and I think there are spiders in them. It hurts.” Brock was lying on the floor, clutching his shins, while his eight-year-old brother, Connor, stood there laughing at him. I reminded Connor that he said something very similar when he was younger, too.
Discomfort in both legs—usually in the front of the thighs or shins, or sometimes behind the knees—is often chalked up to growing pains. (That’s what my mom always told me, anyway. I had them, too.)
Contrary to popular belief, however, this kind of pain isn’t necessarily related to growth spurts, says Peter Nieman, a community paediatrician in Calgary. Growing pains are most common at night, in very active children between the ages of three and five, and then again from eight to 12.
“We can’t 100 percent define what causes growing pains, but it’s most likely fatigue of the muscles after excess physical activity,” says Nieman.
This would explain the pains I felt as a little girl—I was a competitive Irish dancer from the age of three. My boys are also extremely busy with sports: Connor competes in motocross and plays rep hockey; Brock loves soccer and basketball. My husband, who was also an athletic kid, recalls growing pains, too.
Some doctors believe that there’s a genetic link: If you had achy legs, your children are at a higher risk. Other studies have found that it’s simply because active parents are more likely to raise active kids.
Watch for patterns: Does the pain always appear after lots of physical activity? Keep an eye out for atypical symptoms, such as stiffness or swelling of the joints; walking with a limp; pain in one leg only; pain in the arms; limited range of movement; and limbs that are tender to touch. If the pain doesn’t go away overnight, if your child has been having frequent nosebleeds or getting lots of bruises, or is avoiding putting weight on his legs, it’s time to schedule a visit to the doctor. “This is when I would want to do some blood work and X-rays to check things out further,” adds Nieman. In his 26 years of experience as a paediatrician, parents mostly want reassurance that their children are OK, and they usually are.
Mom of two Susan Ford, of Milton, Ont., hears frequent “achy legs” complaints from her kids, Jimmy, 10, and Laura, five. “Jim’s pain has been coming and going for almost a year now, and I’m starting to hear the same complaints from Laura,” she says. “We usually just sleep it off, because I had similar pains when I was small. My mom always told me that it was growing pains, because I was tall for my age. But I was also a very active kid.”
Ford’s mother used to give her Tylenol and put ice pack on her legs—treatment suggestions that haven’t really changed over the years.
Try massaging your child’s legs, and apply a heating pad or ice for a few minutes. (Both work, but a heating pad is usually more comfortable for kids.) You can also administer acetaminophen or an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen. A good night’s sleep often does the trick.
Nieman also tells parents to make sure their kids are wearing appropriate footwear, with good arch support. His last piece of advice is to get back to basics: Maintain good nutrition, and drink lots of water, because dehydration can cause muscle cramping. “You have to ensure these kids are well hydrated and eating the right foods,” he says. “It makes a world of difference to the way the body functions, grows and reacts.”
A version of this article appears in our August 2013 issued, called "Growing pains," p.60.