Written by Dr. Howard Quackenbush, PT, DPT, CSCS, ATC
I am very lucky to be the father of six kids. Like many of you, I have been awakened as a parent by a child in pain and crying because their legs hurt at night. I am sure you are like me, and would do anything to get them to feel better including massaging them, giving him medications, holding them, and worrying about them.
But growing pains do not need to keep you up at night nor your children! I am embarrassed to tell you that it wasn’t until my younger children came along that I realised I had the tools to help them get out of these pains. As a physical therapist and athletic trainer, I’m even more embarrassed to admit this! Hopefully my failures, can be your future successes!
I want to discuss with you today the reasons behind growing pains and three simple exercises that you can help your child do to decrease the intensity of growing pains or eliminate them altogether. (we also have a YouTube video of these exercises and explanations. You can find it with this link: https://youtu.be/QCgcDltrmTs )
What are growing pains?
As we grow, our body goes through multiple changes and biological processes to lengthen the bones, grow the muscles, and develop the internal organs and nervous system. The growth spurts can continue well into the late teenage years and early 20’s.
As a child grows, his/her bones begin to lengthen quickly. This is noticeable by longer arms and longer legs. The problem is that muscles and the tendons don’t lengthen at the same rate the bones do. A thigh or a shin bone will elongate at a faster rate than the muscles and tendons can accommodate. The tension that is placed on the tendons causes machines and pain as those tendons and muscles are trying to stretch and grow. This pain is commonly associated with the term “growing pains”.
What do I do when my child comes to me in pain?
If your child comes to you and they are hurting from growing pains, the most important thing to do with them is to love them and reassure them that they will be fine. Heating pads, massage, and range of motion are often used to alleviate some of these pains during these moments. The problem is the pain will not go away until the muscles have had time to stretch and adapt to the new bone length. Like most things in healthcare, prevention is the most effective treatment, but often times it is overlooked.
What can I do to prevent growing pains?
Here’s a mental exercise for you… If the pain is caused because the muscles did not stretch while the bones are growing, would it not make sense to help the muscle stretch and elongate when the bones are not growing? This is the secret to preventing growing pains! If you can develop a consistent stretching program in between growing spurts, the pain of growing pains will be greatly reduced or even prevented.
Here are my three favourite growing pains prevention stretches!
1. Calf Stretches
There’re many ways to stretch your calf muscles but my favourite is to stand on a wedge and allow the calf muscles to stretch. I tell my patients that they can purchase foam wedges online or build one in their garage easily. If the wedge is 1 foot long and 4 inches tall this is a very good angle to stretch the calf muscles. I often tell people to take a 2 x 4 and turn it on its side and screw a 1 foot piece of plywood to it to make this type of wedge. Standing on the wedge for five minutes in the morning and 5 in the evening will greatly reduce the cast and shin pain experience with shin-splints and growing pains.
2. Quadriceps (Thigh) Stretching
There are four muscles of the quadriceps and it is relatively difficult to get all of them at the same time but I have a good suggestion for you. Have your child lie on the floor on his/her stomach and have them grab their ankles and pull them up to their bottom. Most of the time, you will see that their knees are quite far apart. Gently correct them by having them pull their knees together and they will immediately feel a significant stretch in all four of the quadriceps muscles. Have them maintain this position for 30 seconds.
3. Seated Hamstring Stretches
The most overlooked muscles that can cause growing pains particularly at the knees are the hamstrings. The hamstrings connect to the back and sides of the knees and can cause significant pain and tenderness. I like to have my children sit with their backs up against the wall and their legs out in front of them. They will tend to slump and slide away from the wall because their hamstrings are short and tight. It is important to try and keep the hips as close to the wall as possible and try to flatten the niece to the floor is able. If this is too much, another option is to have them sit on the floor and pull one leg up sold that the foot is on the inside edge of the thigh with the other leg extended and try and reach and grab the shin or ankle if possible. Have your child spend 3-5 minutes in these positions on each leg and it will greatly reduce their knee pain with growing pains.
I have found that these three simple stretches have made a significant difference in my children’s pains. As a parent, having a way to decrease her pain has given me much relief in my own life. If you were consistent in helping your child have a stretching program in between growing spurts, you will eliminate significant amount of pain from their life and allow them to better participate in the activities and sports that they enjoy.