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Nuts & Bolts

August 6, 2013

Are growing pains real?

(Continued)

NEW YORK —

Still, a small 1988 trial found that regular stretching does appease growing pains. Doctors at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Canada randomly split 34 kids with growing pains into two groups. The parents of the kids in the first group were taught how to stretch their kids' quadriceps, hamstrings and calves, and were told to do so every morning and evening for 10 minutes. The second group of parents were told to rub their kids' legs when they hurt and to give them painkillers when needed. Nine months later none of the kids in the stretching group were experiencing growing pains, while the kids in the other group were still suffering, on average, about two episodes of pains a month.

Other researchers have proposed that growing pains are sometimes the result of underlying anatomical problems or differences. Double-jointed kids, who are at a heightened risk for fibromyalgia and musculoskeletal disorders, are more likely to have growing pains, for instance. So, it seems, are kids with pronated (flat) feet, which can cause muscle imbalances and fatigue. One small trial found that shoe inserts reduced the severity and frequency of kids' growing pains within three weeks. When doctors took out their shoe inserts, the pain came back in most of the kids. But it's hard to know how much we can conclude from this trial and the stretching one. The children knew they were undergoing a form of treatment, so their improvement could have been in part the result of the placebo effect (which can, it seems, happen to kids) — they may have felt better because they were being treated, but not necessarily because the treatment worked.

Finally, some doctors have pointed out that growing pains are, for some reason, more common in emotionally instable children. In a 1951 paper, for instance, researchers noted that kids with growing pains were "frequently irritable, nervous, afraid of the dark." The implication seems to be that growing pains are either a reflection of emotional problems or perhaps even caused by them, but it's hard to identify the chicken and the egg here: I would be nervous and afraid of the dark, too, if nightfall brought extreme pain.

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