Are ‘growing pains’ real? Scientists can’t agree on a medical definition for the childhood problem

SYDNEY, Australia — Parents and doctors often say those random aches and pains in a child’s muscles and joints are just “growing pains.” However, a new study undercuts that theory. Researchers from the University of Sydney reveal there is no consistent medical definition for growing pains.

Growing pains first came to the public’s attention in 1823, thanks to a book called “Maladies de la Croissance” — or “Diseases of Growth.” Physicians consider the diagnosis to be one of the most common causes of recurring musculoskeletal pain in children and adolescents. Previous studies claimed that up to a third of children experience growing pains at some point.

“Thousands of kids are diagnosed with growing pains by their health care professional, but we were curious — what does that diagnosis really mean?” says study lead author Dr. Mary O’Keeffe, from Sydney’s Institute of Musculoskeletal Health, in a media release.

4 in 5 studies never mentioned the patient’s age

For this study, researchers analyzed information from 147 studies that mentioned growing pains. Researchers wanted to see how scientists defined growing pains and if there were any detailed criteria that led to the diagnosis. The medical literature researchers poured over included systematic reviews, editorials, observational studies, case-controlled studies, and theses.

The study found there is no agreement among researchers and clinicians on what growing pains really are, what they mean, how doctors define them, and how medical professionals should diagnose them. The researchers call growing pains a medical misnomer, as more than 93 percent of the studies did not refer to growth when defining the condition. Researchers add that more than 80 percent of the studies made no mention of age in their definition at all.

“What we found was a little concerning: that there is no consistency in the literature on what growing pains means,” explains Steven Kamper, professor at the School of Health Sciences at the University of Sydney and Nepean Blue Mountains Local Health District. “The definitions were really variable, vague and often contradictory. Some studies suggested growing pains happened in the arms, or in the lower body. Some said it was about muscles while other studies said joints.”

What did the studies find?

Of the studies researchers examined, only seven (less than 10%) mentioned growth related to the pain. Researchers say more than 80 percent did not mention a young person’s age at the time these so-called growing pains occurred.

Researchers say there was also no universal agreement on where the pain was located or when the pain would typically take place. Fifty percent of the studies referenced growing pains in the lower limbs, with 28 percent specifically citing the knees. Researchers say 48 percent of the studies reported growing pains taking place during the evening, while 42 percent said the pain was recurring.

“What this study uncovered was while growing pains is a very popular label used to diagnose musculoskeletal pain, it means very different things to different people,” notes Kamper. “This level of uncertainty means clinicians don’t have a clear guide or criteria to know when the label ‘growing pains might be appropriate for a patient.’”

Questions arose through the study as to whether growing pains have any connection to growth itself in a child’s bones or muscles.

“There is a lack of evidence or inconsistent information on growing pains as a condition — and how it is associated with growth, or even the cause of the pain,” says Dr. O’Keeffe. “There is a real opportunity to understand this condition — given how widespread the use of the term is, or whether there is even a need to use this term.”

Researchers recommend medical professionals not use the term “growing pains” as a stand-alone diagnosis until a clear definition, backed by evidence, is available.

The study is published in the journal Pediatrics.

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