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Q: My daughter complains of pain in her legs at night (specifically her shins). The pediatrician told me they are just "growing pains", and to give her Tylenol. I didn't care for that explanation and took her to another pediatrician, who gave me the same answer! Could there be such a thing?
A: There is a type of leg pain called growing pains, however there is no evidence that it has anything to do with the growth of the bones. No one knows what the cause is. We should probably find a better name for it! Growing pains occur primarily in children ages 4 to 10. The typical description is pain in both legs, the shins, calves, or thighs, which usually occurs toward the end of the day, particularly when the child has been active. They get better with rest, and are totally resolved in the morning when the child wakes up. Most children stop having these pains by adolescence, and they are totally benign. There is often some emotional component to the complaint, and they may occur more frequently during times of upheaval or stress.
It is important to make sure you do not call all leg pain in kids "growing pains," and if the pain doesn't fit the criteria I just mentioned, it likely needs to be evaluated further. Pain that only occurs in one leg, or occurs in the joints, is not growing pains. If there is any swelling or color change of the legs along with the pain, it is not growing pains. If the pain does not resolve with some Tylenol and a night's sleep, it is not growing pains.
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Shari Nethersole is a physician at Children's Hospital, Boston, and an instructor in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She graduated from Yale University and Harvard Medical School, and did her internship and residency at Children's Hospital, Boston. As a pediatrician, she tries to work with parents to identify and address their concerns.