When children complain of aches in their legs, the traditional response is it’s ‘growing pains’. Sometimes, otherwise perfectly fit and healthy children will clutch their shins, ankles or calves complaining of throbbing pain.
Typically, this occurs in the evening or at night when children are aged between four and 12 and it can disturb their sleep. Yet although we call these ‘growing pains’, growth has nothing to do with it.
“What we refer to as growing pains is normally caused by having hypermobile joints – what we also call being double-jointed – and what it means is that the joints move more than normal,” says Dr Nathan Hasson, a Consultant Rheumatologist at The Portland Hospital.
“So whereas most of us can move the finger from the knuckle to 90 degrees, someone who has hypermobile joints could move it to 180 degrees. “It can have great benefits - many sportsmen and women are hypermobile as it gives them greater flexibility.
“The problem is that if a child is hypermobile and has weak muscles, then when they run about or kick a ball their muscles have to work that much harder to support their flexible joints and this is what results in the aches and pains.”
The problem is widespread: as many as 40 per cent of Caucasian children may be hypermobile – and with Asian children the figure is 60 per cent.
“There are tell-tale signs that your child may be hypermobile: they don’t find it easy to sit cross legged and prefer to have their legs out to the side. “They also tend to be flat footed and as babies they will often bum shuffle rather than crawl,” says Dr Hasson. Although, traditionally, it was thought that ‘growing pains’ occurred when children had growth spurts, actually they are most common when children’s physical activity decreases: either at four when they start school or around 11 when they start getting more homework and their muscles get weaker.
The ‘growing pains’ also occur after a hypermobile child has been particularly busy – and are just weak muscles complaining because they are not usually used that much.
“Flexible children don’t tend to get aches and pains unless their muscles are weak,” says Dr Hasson. “Because of increasingly sedentary lifestyles these days, many children are profoundly weak – there are 22 muscles that I routinely examine in children aged four to 18 and usually only five of them have the right degree of strength.”
“So children may get very active from time to time but they don’t have the muscle strength to support this so it hurts.”
The occasional ache and pain can be helped with massage or children’s ibuprofen. If your child has persistent aches and pains then getting your child a referral to a rheumatologist may be helpful.
“We can advise on exercises to help strengthen key muscles - usually using weights and insoles maybe advised to help improve posture,” adds Dr Hasson.
“The worst thing you can do is stop your child being active – they need to improve muscle tone not lose it.” Aches and pains in children can be a sign of some other conditions such as juvenile arthritis. So, if your child has visibly inflammed joints, any fever or reluctance to walk on their joints as normal, then do consult a doctor.
By Lucy Elkins