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Nuts & Bolts

August 6, 2013

Are growing pains real?

NEW YORK — I'm lucky: When I hear the phrase "growing pains," I think of Kirk Cameron, not night aches. I never suffered from growing pains as a child, and as far as I can tell, my 2-year-old doesn't have them yet either. So sometimes I wonder: Are growing pains real? If so, what causes them? And how do I make sure my kid never has them, because I really don't need another reason for screamy 3 a.m. wake-ups?

Growing pains are real — in fact, they're pretty common. Estimates vary, but one Australian study found that as many as 37 percent of 4-to-6-year-olds experience these recurring aches, which typically afflict a child's lower limbs in the afternoon or at night. Bizarrely, though, growing pains actually have nothing to do with growing — more on that later. And while they are nothing to worry about and usually disappear by the age of 14, growing pains can be confused with more serious health problems — so it's good to know what they are and what they aren't.

The term "growing pains" first appeared in a book penned in 1823 by a French doctor, but since then physicians have realized that the peak of these pains, which is at around age 6, doesn't correspond to a period of rapid growth. (A quarter of a person's total growth actually happens during puberty). So it's unlikely that growth has anything to do with growing pains, at least directly. But despite attempts to come up with more accurate monikers (such as "noninflammatory pain syndrome of early childhood"), the old name stuck.

How frequently kids experience growing pains varies — some never get them, others get them five times a year, and a handful of poor souls have them every night. But timingwise, there are a few general rules. First, growing pains usually first appear during the preschool years. "If a child is 8 and all of a sudden has pain at night, it is not growing pains," explains Barbara Ostrov, a pediatric rheumatologist at Penn State University. Second, growing pains only happen in the afternoon or at night, so kids who complain of pain during the day or who wake up stiff or sore in the morning are almost certainly not experiencing growing pains. Most of the time, the pains disappear by around age 14, but some kids will have them throughout their teen-age years.

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