If your child has complained about leg or joint pains, you may be concerned. Nearly one-third of school-aged children may have these types of pains says Dr. Saad Saad, a noted pediatric surgeon based in New Jersey. These symptoms usually get better on their own, and may be due solely to exercise and healthy playing.
Very often, however, a child’s leg pains are simply growing pains. The pains can occur in thigh, knee or calve muscles.
Usually, the discomfort will simply go away on its own . However, you should be aware that the symptoms may indicate something more serious. Lyme disease, juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), lupus, and leukemia can all cause leg pains, Dr. Saad advises.
If there are any other symptoms, or if you are especially concerned, you should consult a doctor for further investigation. More serious leg pains indicate a condition that needs medical intervention.
What are growing pains?
Research suggests that of the 30 percent of school children who experience chronic leg pain, about one-half of the children’s pain is due to growing pains.
Growing pains typically occur during a child’s preschool and preteen years, and they usually end in the teenage years. These pains are harmless and are not a sign of a serious condition, says Dr. Saad Saad.
The pains generally occur in the calf and thigh muscles or behind the knees, and may occur in the arms. Children experience them as cramp-like pains or aches, and they can range from mild to severe.
Symptoms of growing pains include:
- Occur in the evening or night and resolve by morning
- Severe enough to wake a child from sleep
- Usually affect both legs rather than one
- Happen several nights in a row or intermittently
- Headaches or abdominal pain may also occur
People once thought growing pains were caused by bones growing during growth spurts. However, doctors no longer believe this is true. There is no evidence that growth causes pain.
More likely, what is perceived as “growing pains” may be the result of children being physically active during the day — aches from climbing, jumping, and running while playing.
These pains may also be due to low pain tolerance, fatigue, restless leg syndrome, or even vitamin D deficiency.
How to ease growing pains, according to Dr. Saad Saad
Dr. Saad Saad advises several home remedies to help ease a child’s leg aches and pains:
Warm bath: A warm bath before bedtime can help ease the aches and pains and also promote sleep.
Massage. Gently rubbing the painful leg can help the child feel better. Cuddling and holding the child can give the child comfort.
Stretching. While gentle stretches during the day can ease or prevent these leg pains, young children can have difficulty doing the exercises. Talk to your doctor about which exercises are best.
Warmth. A heating pad or hot water bottle might help an aching leg. These should be warm, not hot. Protect the child’s skin from burning. Do not use these treatments while the child is sleeping.
Painkillers. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen are over-the-counter medications that can help relieve these occasional aches and pains.
DO NOT give aspirin to children. Dr. Saad and other doctors do not recommend aspirin for children, as aspirin has been linked with a rare serious condition called Reye’s syndrome.
Other causes of joint pain in children
Dr. Saad Saad also advises that a child’s joint pains may be a sign of a serious underlying condition, including:
Ticks are tiny insects that can spread the bacterial infection known as Lyme disease. These ticks carry a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi that they pass onto humans when they bite them. These ticks tend to live in grassy areas and woodlands in specific regions and feed on mice, deer, and other animals.
Lyme disease symptoms include:
- Circular rash at the tick bite (“bull’s-eye rash”)
- Fever or chills
- Joint or muscle pain
- Facial paralysis
People who spend time in an area where Lyme disease occurs can become infected. Children who spend a lot of time playing outside are at greater risk, says Dr. Saad Saad.
To prevent Lyme disease, make sure children wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts. After children play outdoors, parents or caregivers should carefully check the child’s whole body for tick bites.
After a tick bite, the bulls-eye rash can appear within 3 weeks. Joint pain may be the first and only symptom that children have.
Early diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease are critical to prevent severe complications. Anyone who suspects an infected tick has bitten their child should see a doctor, as soon as possible.
Juvenile idiopathic arthritis
If a child frequently complains of joint pain, juvenile idiopathic arthritis or JIA may be the cause.
JIA can cause swelling and pain in one or more joints. Unlike growing pains, JIA can also affect a child’s strength or movement.
There are several different types of JIA and symptoms can vary, so it can be difficult for a doctor to diagnose. However, early diagnosis and treatment are vital because JIA can affect bone growth and lead to permanent complications, says Dr. Saad Saad.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), or lupus, is an autoimmune disorder that can affect nearly every body organ. Lupus is very uncommon in younger children; teenagers, especially females, are more prone to developing lupus.
Lupus symptoms include:
- tiredness even after resting
- swelling, pain, or stiffness in the joints
- skin rashes around the nose
- hair loss
Lupus is a long-term condition, and the symptoms can range in severity. However, early diagnosis and treatment can improve the outlook, says Dr. Saad Saad.
Leukemia is a cancer of the blood that starts inside the bone marrow. It is the most common type of cancer in children. Leukemia can cause joint and bone pain, and other symptoms.
The symptoms and their severity vary, according to the type of leukemia and can include:
- bleeding or bruising easily
- infections and fevers
- abdominal pain
- swollen lymph nodes
- breathing difficulties
The type of leukemia will determine treatment options and outlook. Many advances have been made in treating childhood leukemia, says Dr. Saad Saad.
Dr. Saad Saad advices when to see a doctor
Seek medical advice if joint pain persists or worsens.
While it is normal for children to have leg arches and pains, they usually disappear as the child grows up. However, if the pain is persistent, severe, or unusual, the child should see a doctor.
Also, Dr. Saad Saad advises consulting a doctor if the joint pains occur with any of these symptoms:
- recent injury
- limping or trouble walking
- swollen, red, or tender joints
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
- fatigue or weakness
The doctor will conduct a physical exam and may need to run tests to find the underlying cause.
While a child may experience aches and pains during growth years, what is known as “growing pains” isn’t a real concern. However, any persistent or severe leg pains along with other symptoms should be discussed right away with a doctor, Dr. Saad Saad emphasizes.
About Dr. Saad Saad
Dr. Saad Saad is a noted pediatric surgeon, now retired, who served as Surgeon-in-Chief and the Co-Medical Director of K Hovnanian Children Hospital at Hackensack Meridian Health Care System in New Jersey for most of his career. Dr. Saad served the Saudi Royal family in the 1980s. Over his 40-year-career, Dr. Saad performed complex pediatric surgeries on patients both inside and outside of his community. He holds the patents for both of his medical inventions, the newly designed catheter and the suction endoscope.