We don’t actually know what “growing pain” is.

“Growing pain” is reported to be the leading cause of bone or muscle pain in adolescents. Image credit: EyeEm/Alamy

The term “growing pain” is often used to refer to pain in children’s limbs. According to a 2007 review, it was the most common cause of bone or muscle pain in adolescents. Studies have estimated that growth pain affects more than one-third of children.

However, despite this, there is still no clear definition of what is growth pain, or what causes growth pain. In fact, growth pain may be completely unrelated to growth. A recent study on growth pain noted that the vast majority of papers (93 percent) did not mention the relationship between symptoms of bone or muscle pain and growth. The findings were published in Pediatrics on July 22.

Corresponding author Mary O’Keeffe, institute for musculoskeletal health at the University of Sydney, Australia, said: “Children and adolescents are told they have growth pain, but based on our findings, this is inaccurate.” Most children diagnosed with growth pain are told that the pain subsides with age and that they can take children’s ibuprofen or acetaminophen to control discomfort if needed.

“A health professional’s diagnosis needs to be based on reliable evidence. So they need to determine that the cause of the growth pain is growth, but at the moment we are not sure about this. O’Keeffe said.

She worries that such a blanket diagnosis makes little sense, or worse, it could lead doctors to ignore other diseases that require further investigation. To learn more, O’Keeffe’s team combed through the studies and identified 147 studies that mentioned adolescent growth or growth pain. They then compared the studies’ definitions of growth pain based on eight characteristics of pain (type, location, duration, time, severity, age of onset, relationship to activity, and physical examination).

The results found that these studies were contradictory in multiple areas. For example, 14 percent of studies claim that growing pain is persistent, while 5 percent explicitly say this is not the case. Only 7 studies have indicated that this condition may be due to growth; One study showed that pain occurred mainly at the end of the growth peak period due to slowing growth at this time; Two studies explicitly showed that these pains were not associated with growth.

However, these studies reached a basic consensus on the location of pain: 50% of studies concluded that pain during growth mainly affects the legs. Other studies have found that arms, back, groin, or shoulders are the main areas of pain.

O’Keeffe said the contradictions generated by these studies make the diagnosis largely meaningless.

“If I were a doctor, I wouldn’t use the word to inform children and their parents anymore because at the moment it doesn’t seem to have much effect.” O’Keeffe believes more research is needed to better understand pain in children and adolescents. (Source: China Science Daily Xin Yu)

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