What are growing pains?
Growing pains is an often-overused, catchall term for inflammation that occurs in the joints of adolescents.
Of course, if someone between the age of 10-17 has pain in their joints. It does not necessarily mean that they suffer from growing pains.
Rather,growing pains (in the scientific sense) specifically refers to pain that occurs due to inflammation of growth plates.
What are growth plates?
Growth plates are areas of cartilage form at the end of the longer bones of a growing person. This cartilage provides the space and structure for bones to eventually grow into.
As cartilage is softer and more pliable than bone, ligament, or tendon, it is particularly susceptible to strains and small tears. These strains are particularly likely if a young person performs repetitive high impact movement such as sprinting or jumping.
As growth plates eventually develop into bone, the strain put on them should eventually subside with age. This is why growing pains are often dismissed as an issue that does not need to be treated immediately or directly.
What causes this inflammation to growth plates?
The cartilage that makes up growth plates can become inflamed when it is repetitively pulled on by surrounding tendons and ligaments.
This generally occurs due to three reasons:
1) The repetition of a particular movement.
High impact movements where certain muscles rapidly contract and take weight such as sprinting, jumping, twisting or squatting can have this pulling effect on cartilage.
For this reason growing pains more regularly occur in young people who play a lot of sport. Due to the amount of jumping and squatting involved, gridiron football, athletics and basketball are the biggest culprits.
2) Tightness or weakness in muscles, ligaments or tendons that surround the affected area.
Quite simply, if certain muscles are tight, then it will exert extra strain on relatively delicate cartilage.
Cartilage is not meant to stretch or take force, that’s the job of the muscles. However if the muscle is not strong enough to perform its function. Then this will put stress on the cartilage as it compensates for the muscle weakness.
For this reason growing pains are more common in boys than in girls (as girls are generally more supple than boys) and it usually affects people just after a rapid growth spurt where muscles have not yet grown to accommodate the increased length of bones.
3) Poor posture can tighten the muscles putting extra strain on cartilage.
Slouching, and a high or fallen arch can tighten muscles, putting additional strain onto your cartilage.
Tight muscles generally cause poor posture, but poor posture also exacerbates muscle tightness. This can lead to a vicious cycle, meaning that poor posture should be corrected as a matter of urgency.
What parts of the body are usually affected by growing pains?
Growth plates are found at each end of the longer bones of a developing body. Therefore, growing pains are most commonly experienced at the joints that meet at the end of your longest bones.
The longest bones in the human body are the main bone in the thigh (femur) and in the lower leg (tibia). Growing pains are therefore commonly experienced in the hip, around the knee, and in the heel.
In fact, the two most common growing pains are Osgood Schlatter Disease, which affects the meeting point between the shinbone and the kneecap, and Severs Disease, which affects the heel.
How to treat growing pains?
The treatment of growing pains can be divided into the immediate treatment of its acute effects, and the longer-term treatment of its causes.
As growing pains manifests itself as inflammation (soreness, swelling and heat) the best way to immediately ease these symptoms is through application of cold to the affected area, and to take a break from any movements that seem to aggravate the pain.
This, however, will not solve the root cause of the problem. And if it is the only way that such injuries are treated, the problem will likely return when the sufferer starts exercising again.
As the problem is generally causes by muscle stiffness or weakness around the affected area. Longer-term treatments should involve stretching or strengthening the relevant muscles.
For example, in the case of Osgood Schlatter Disease, where pain is experienced just below the knee. The cause is often stiffness in the quadriceps and hamstrings.
Therefore an appropriate treatment for this would be to reduce high impact exercise that puts strain on the knees (such as sprinting or jumping) and to focus on stretching and strengthening your quadriceps and hamstrings.
This break from exercise only needs to last a few weeks, or until the pain completely subsides. If the relevant stretches and exercises have been consistently done over this time then a gradual return to previously played sport and exercise shouldn’t aggravate the injury further.
A physiotherapist can help diagnose which muscle imbalances are the culprit for particular growing pains. And can recommend the most appropriate stretches and exercises to put the problem right.
Why treat growing pains if they can just be grown out of?
Admittedly, as the cartilage in growth plates eventually develops into bone, growing pains should subside over time.
However, growing pains offer an excellent indicator of where someone’s muscular weakness and imbalances lie.
Not only that, but they also reveal this information at a most ideal time for these imbalances to be treated and rectified—when someone is young.
Although growing pains subside when someone reaches adulthood. These underlying weaknesses are likely to re-emerge as pain and mobility problems as someone gets older.
It will also make them more susceptible to certain types of injury throughout their adult life. A particular problem if they play a lot of sport.
Therefore addressing the underlying issues behind a child’s growing pains will pay them dividends in the long run.
Muscles in young bodies are far more easily strengthened than those in older bodies. So growing pains really should be seen as an opportunity to address muscle imbalances while they are still easily corrected.