Bone & Joint | Children
May 4, 2016

Painful legs at bedtime: How to deal with growing pains

by Helping a child deal with growing pains

Try these tips to help your child with painful legs, and know when it’s more than growing pains.


When my daughter was about 7 or 8, we endured a strange, on-again, off-again bedtime ritual.

“Mommy,” she’d plead tearfully, as I tucked her in, “rub the stinky medicine on me! Please?”

The “stinky medicine” was Bengay. She didn’t mind its medicinal odor at all, so long as she got its tingly soothing warmth massaged into her shins.

My daughter had growing pains.

The term implies that these intense aches happen when a child is in a particularly rapid growth period, but little about “growing pains” is clear-cut. They don’t strike infants or teenagers, who also grow very fast, points out Dr. Andrew Gregory, an orthopaedic and sports-medicine specialist at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

But growing pains — technically called “benign nocturnal leg pain of childhood” — are common in grade-school children. Kids suffering through them typically feel pain in their lower legs at night, then everything seems fine during the day and normal activities.

“People use the term incorrectly to refer to any pains that happen in children,” Gregory says. But pain in other areas — arms, back, hips — are not growing pains, he says, and if this is what ails your child, you should discuss those problems with your pediatrician.

Meanwhile, there are things that help soothe your child’s painful legs:

  • Aceteminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil). Check the label on the box or ask your pediatrician for the correct dosage for your child.
  • Topical pain-relieving creams and ointments. Hence my daughter’s nightly plea for Bengay.
  • Ice packs or warm compresses applied to the sore areas. Gregory says either can help, but children usually prefer the warmth. Don’t use a heating pad after applying pain-relief cream, though, because that can lead to burns.
  • Gentle massage. Massage is helpful for both pain relief and providing comfort.
  • Distraction doesn’t hurt, either. My daughter’s growing pains struck long before she owned an iPod. I moved a CD player into her room so soft music would give her something to concentrate on besides her discomfort as she tried to fall asleep. Reading stories before bed was also helpful.
  • Patience. Unfortunately, classic bouts of growing pains can last for months or years. In my daughter’s case, we’d have a couple of bad weeks, then no pain for several months, then a few more bad weeks.  Things went on like that for maybe six months to a year. Eventually her growing pains disappeared.

Before they did, though, the bedtime tears and menthol-scented leg massages became routine. Just as I wondered whether my little diva had simply become accustomed to the bedtime attention, demanding the hands-on pampering out of habit, her growing pains faded away and she was once again able to settle down for the night without any fuss. She is a teenager now and has been growing at a startlingly fast rate. But her legs don’t bother her — phew!

Growing pains are not serious. But parents shouldn’t chalk up every mysterious complaint to growing pains, either. Limping, swelling, pain in only one leg or pain that continues in the morning or worsens over time are all signs of more challenging orthopaedic problems, says Gregory. If your child experiences any of those symptoms, contact your pediatrician or a pediatric orthopaedic expert.

Maura Ammenheuser is a mother of two and a web content producer for Vanderbilt University Medical Center.


What helped your child get through his or her growing pains? 

Early Childhood

4 thoughts on “Painful legs at bedtime: How to deal with growing pains”

  1. Kyle Crafton says:

    Wow, this is so pertinent for me…my 7 year old just had a horrible night from leg pains on Monday. There truly is a temptation (as a parent) to think that these pains are just attention-seeking behavior, especially when they coincide with bedtime – when they can look a lot like classic stalling. But the real tears that flow during a 2am “my leg hurts” wakeup are a stark reminder that these pains can be very real.

    1. Maura Ammenheuser says:

      Hi, Kyle. Yes, I was half-convinced that my daughter had just found a way to get attention. And half-convinced something was seriously wrong with her. The leg massages definitely helped. I hope your family gets through it without much difficulty. Nighttime pain is no fun for kids or parents!

  2. Tish Smedley says:

    As a child, around 7 or 8, I experienced this pain. My parents told me it was growing pains and they did disappear as strangely as they started. Because this was about 55 years ago, we had no ointment but my Dad rubbed my legs every night with rubbing alcohol. It did the trick, but I still remember those dull aches.

    1. Maura Ammenheuser says:

      Thank you for sharing your experience. It obviously made an impression if you remember it that clearly. Your dad had the right instincts.

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