Growing Pains ~ Myth or Fact
There is no scientific evidence for growing pains. But speak with parents and they will certainly give a variety of evidence that growing pains are very real. The reality is that many children suffer from fleeting pain, usually in the middle of the night. And that pain is typically labeled as “growing pains”. Current research indicates that 2 out of every 5 kids will complain of sharp or burning pain at very distinct times, usually during the night. This pain is typically very low in duration, happens in the middle of the night or very early morning. It is not associated with any kind of mechanism or causation and is usually gone by the morning. So are growing pains in fact real, or something passed on from generation to generation to account for pain that cannot be explained?
Growing pains defined
Growing pains are defined as neuralgic pain that occurs in the limbs of some young children. In simple terms, neuralgic is a sharp pain felt along the length of a nerve. Nerves are the parts of the body that carry information from the limbs to the brain and back. It stands to reason that a pain nerve that is irritated can and will transmit pain. This is where growing pains get their name. It is assumed that the bones and muscles grow faster than the nerve and therefore it is stretched causing pain. Growing pains can be a convenient reason to easily explain away pains that don’t have an obvious source. It makes sense too. Most kids go through two very explosive growth spurts, usually from ages 3 to 5 and then again from age 8 to 12. During these times, a child will grow an average of 2.5 inches a year, some peaking as high as 4 inches a year. This growth rarely comes in a nice smooth average either. Within those explosive years, a child may have explosive months, growing as much as a half inch in 30 days. Allometry can make things even more complicated. Allometry is nothing more than an understanding in biology that body parts grow at different rates, constantly changing a child’s proportions. One leg may in fact grow faster than the other. This asymmetry often doesn’t last, as the other leg catches up quickly. Nevertheless it would make sense why growing pains can be intuitive. With all the change going on in a child’s body, one would think that pain is a natural and normal thing during growth.
Consistent pain is more than likely something other than growing pains
Unfortunately there is no evidence of this. There is also no correlation between the rate of growth and occurrence of pain. In fact there are no epidemiological studies whatsoever to support the observation of pain in children related to growth. Some studies actually indicate the opposite, finding a negative correlation between growth spurts and pain. This means pain is happening less during aggressive growth. New terms like recurrent limb pain are being used more often to account for pain that has no demonstrable causation. Theories of causation are now ranging from poor posture, tiredness, or even psychological causes. Of course I have my own theories as well, none of them with empirical evidence mind you. The jury may still be out on the causation of these pains, but one thing is for sure. Some pain, heck, all pain, shouldn’t be ignored.
What is pain?
Understanding the necessity of pain and how it is used by the brain, is an important step to understanding growing pains, or whatever they are. Pain is very complex and “people often think of pain as a purely physical sensation. However, pain has biological, psychological and emotional factors”. Pain has a purpose. It is meant to stop a behavior or indicate a problem that needs attention. Pain is always an illusion completely fabricated by your brain. Body tissue does not have the capacity to “feel” pain. The video below is a fantastic explanation of pain. What it is and what it does.
With this in mind, we see that growing pains don’t really fall into a usable source of information for the brain. There is no reason for growth to hurt, so why would it?
When it’s time to do something about your child’s pain
Demonstrable pain is pain that has a readily available explanation. This is not a difficult subject. Your child falls off the monkey bars, breaks his leg and screams his head off, is not a situation that needs much advice. It is easy to see the problem and what steps are necessary to rectify it. Breaks, infections, strains and sprains are all easily identifiable and treated. Demonstrable pain is obvious. Parents are much more concerned with the pain their child suffers that has no readily available explanation. Being unable to identify the source of pain is not a problem in of itself. Pain that doesn’t last and is quickly forgotten is not pain that any parent should be worried about. Pain that has a high frequency and longer duration, with no ready explanation is.
Don’t worry, most musculoskeletal pain is actually easily explained. For a parent, it may be illusive to locate why their child is in pain. Most professionals however, will find the source of pain quickly and give good advice to stop it. It just means parents need to pay attention and seek advice when appropriate. Our rule of thumb is any pain (without a mechanism of injury) lasting more than a week to 10 days is something a parent needs to address. The likelihood is the pain is highly related to poor movement or behavior. It could also be a reaction to stress or be used as an excuse. All these things ultimately need to be addressed. A parent may believe their child is just lazy and using pain as an excuse, but not realize the amount of stress their child is under. Don’t forget, pain has its function.
The Sport Trap
Often I hear of parents discounting their child’s pain because of how hard practice is. This is a dangerous myth. Exercise should never be painful, child or adult. This is contrary to popular belief. Many sports and exercise programs are designed to break individuals simple because of how it feels. The adage of no pain no gain is the worst possible philosophy any person should hold, let alone children. Pain is never a good indicator of effort level and commitment. Oddly, neither is soreness. Pain has a function, ignore it and pay the price. Delayed muscle soreness although normal is fleeting and resolves quickly in children. Remember that pain should never be ignored, never sought after, and if not addressed will cause problems later. If your child has complained about pain lasting more than a week, it may be time to contact your local medical staff.
All the practitioners at Performance Pediatrics and Human Performance and Rehabilitation are willing to help in any way. If you have questions, or would like to speak with a professional please feel free to call, we do the best we can to make time for parents and aim to educate whenever we can. We can be reached at:
402 West Garden of the God’s Road
Colorado Springs, CO 80907