NEW YORK —
So, when your kid wakes up in the middle of the night screaming her head off about pain in her legs, how can you be sure she is experiencing growing pains and is not, like, suffering the onset of some horrible disease? Generally speaking, if pains conform to the strict definition of growing pains — if they happen only at night, if they're on both sides, and if they're invisible — your kid is probably fine. Benign bone tumors, often confused with growing pains, usually only cause pain on one side; arthritis (yes, kids can get arthritis) usually causes redness or swelling and often is worst in the morning. Restless legs syndrome, which a study suggests affects 0.5 percent of kids and 1 percent of adolescents, is characterized by a strong desire to move the legs that is sated once that's been done. Parents who are worried about their kids may want to ask for lab tests like X-rays and blood tests to rule out other problems, but the vast majority of time, growing pains are growing pains — they're harmless.
This doesn't necessarily mean they have to be suffered night after night, though. Painkillers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen often do the trick (and you can give them pre-emptively, at bedtime, if your child's pain follows predictable patterns — like if it's always the night after gymnastics practice). Massaging the aching area can help. It might be worth stretching your kids' legs in the morning and at night to see if it makes a difference, too. And if things get really bad, consider a visit to a podiatrist to see if your child might benefit from orthotics. But if nothing works, keep reassuring your child — and yourself — that growing pains do one day go away. Just like the television show. Hey, at least your child doesn't have to endure that.
Moyer is a science writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. and is Slate's parenting advice columnist.