Miguel woke up every night just an hour after going to sleep, crying that his leg hurt. Sometimes he said his thigh ached, and other times he complained about his shin. And sometimes it was the right leg, while other times it was the left. He’d go back to sleep only after his mom gave him a little ibuprofen and massaged his leg for 10 minutes.

Growing pains aren’t just a myth. They affect up to 25% of children, generally between the ages of 3 and 12. These deep pains are felt in the thigh or calf and can occur many nights a week—for months—before they just disappear.

Even though they’re common, we have no clear idea what causes these aches. Are they really from growing—or from the jumping, climbing and running that normal kids do all day? We just don’t know. (For some children, the pains do seem to happen after very active days.)

If your child is complaining of pain at night, call your doctor. The doctor should ask you some key questions to figure out if these are routine growing pains—or something more serious:

  • Does the pain or limping occur during the day?
  • Is the pain in a joint?
  • Is it always in the same spot on the same leg?
  • Is the leg painful to touch?
  • Is there any redness or swelling?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then the problem is not a simple case of growing pains. The treatment of growing pains is simple and includes massage, stretching, a heating pad and ibuprofen or another pain reliever.

Note: Another type of nighttime leg pain your tot might experience is muscle cramping. Some kids get painful spasms in their feet or legs during sleep (some adults get these, too). The cramp makes the toes curl painfully and you may able to feel the knotted muscle in your child’s calf.

The best treatment for muscle cramping is to stretch the muscle by having your child walk or firmly pushing the toes up, to stretch the calf and Achilles tendon. If this occurs more than once, a preventative remedy is to give a magnesium supplement mixed into warm milk at dinner or bedtime (this can also cause some loose stools). Ask your health-care professional for the correct dose of magnesium for your child’s weight.

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