Joint pain in kids: Causes, treatment, and when to see a doctor

Growing pains are a common cause of leg pain in children. These pains are muscle aches that can occur in the thighs, behind the knees, or the calves.

Other possible causes of leg pain that may be more serious can include juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), lupus, Lyme disease, and leukemia.

In this article, we look at what we commonly refer to as ‘growing pains,’ what they are, and how people can treat them at home. We also cover other possible causes of joint pains in children and when to see a doctor.

What are growing pains?

Research suggests that more than 30 percent of school children experience chronic musculoskeletal pain. In around half of these children, the pain is due to growing pains.

Growing pains most often occur during a child’s preschool and preteen years, and they usually disappear by their teenage years. These pains are harmless and are not a sign of a serious condition.

Growing pains typically occur in the thigh and calf muscles or behind the knees, but sometimes can also happen in the arms. Children with these types of youthful pains may experience cramps or aches that can range from mild to severe.

Characteristics of growing pains may include:

  • they occur in the evening or night and typically resolving by morning
  • they are severe enough to wake a child from sleep
  • they usually affect both legs rather than one
  • they happen intermittently or several nights in a row
  • they are often accompanied by headaches or abdominal pain

People used to think that growing pains were the result of the bones growing during growth spurts. However, doctors no longer believe this to be the case, as there is no evidence that growth causes pain.

Growing pains may simply be aches that result from children running, jumping, and climbing while playing, during the day.

Growing pains may also be related to other factors, such as fatigue, restless leg syndrome, low pain tolerance, or even vitamin D deficiency.

There is no specific treatment for growing pains. However, the following home remedies can help ease a child’s discomfort:

  • A warm bath. Bathing in warm water, especially before bedtime, can help reduce aches and pains and promote sleep.
  • Massaging. Gently massaging or rubbing the affected area can make the child feel better. Merely holding or cuddling the child may also help.
  • Stretching. Gently stretching the calves and thighs during the day may ease or prevent symptoms. However, stretching exercises may be challenging for younger children. Ask a doctor what types of exercises are best.
  • Warmth. Try applying a heating pad or hot water bottle to the affected area. Make sure these are not too hot and take care to protect the child’s skin from burning. Do not use these items during sleep.
  • Painkillers. Over-the-counter (OTC) medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can help relieve aches and pains on an occasional basis.

People should not give aspirin to children. Doctors do not recommend aspirin for children, as they have linked it with a rare but serious condition called Reye’s syndrome.

Growing pains are a common cause of leg pains in children and usually disappear, as the individual gets older. However, if the pain is persistent, severe, or unusual, the child should see a doctor.

They should also consult a doctor if the joint pains occur alongside any of the following symptoms:

  • swollen, red, or tender joints
  • recent injury
  • limping or trouble walking
  • fever
  • weight loss
  • rash
  • loss of appetite
  • fatigue or weakness

The doctor will conduct a physical exam and may need to run tests to find the underlying cause.


Parents and caregivers frequently worry when children have pains in their legs and joints. Close to a third of school-aged children may have these types of pains, which usually get better on their own, and may be due solely to exercise and healthy playing.

If the pains are accompanied by any other symptoms or an adult is particularly concerned, they should consult a doctor for further investigation, as some pains may indicate a condition that needs medical intervention.

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