My daughter has been waking up with leg cramps—could they really be growing pains?
Yes—and no. Pain in the legs is common in otherwise healthy children and sometimes it is bad enough to wake them from sleep. We don't know exactly what causes this—though it's likely related to the muscles and tendons—but we know it's not serious. We call these unexplained pains, which kids usually outgrow, "growing pains." It's important to know that growing pains are what we doctors call a "diagnosis of exclusion": we give it only after we've made sure there's nothing else going on. There are many possible causes for leg pain—from a pulled muscle to arthritis to even cancer (but that's very rare). So if I see a child with leg pain, I ask lots of questions, do a careful examination, and sometimes order blood tests or imaging, such as an x-ray. Massage, along with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, usually makes a painful episode go away. If the pain is getting worse, if there's redness or swelling, or if your child is having fevers, weight loss, or any other unusual symptom, call your doctor.
Claire McCarthy, M.D., is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.