Why Growing Pains Isn’t A Real Diagnosis

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How many of us grew up with aches and pains in our tiny developing legs, only to be told by doctors that they were probably just growing pains?

Well, turns out there’s no official medical definition for it. And our parents have been lying to us this entire time. 

What Researchers Learned About Growing Pains

Researchers at the University of Sydney were keen to understand this diagnosis. They found that up to a third of children get diagnosed with so-called “growing pains” at some point in time.

Their study, published this year, investigated the definitions of growing pains by sifting through thousands of medical documents and finding 147 studies that mentioned the phrase ‘growing pains’. And what they found is a little concerning.

“There are definitions. The problem is that not everyone uses the same definition. And not only do they not use the same definition, but sometimes they’re contradictory,” Professor Steven Kamper told Junkee.

Some documents described growing pains as something that happens at night, others said the morning. Where growing pains occur in the body is also up for debate, with some definitions saying it happens only in the lower limbs, while others state the arms. 

And you would think that if it’s called ‘growing pains’, the definition would include something about how old you are and how much you’re growing.

“While the most used criteria does mention an age range, a lot of them don’t. Most of them say nothing about how old the kids should be. Almost none of the criteria that we found or the definitions that we found, including the sort of most well developed ones that I’ve talked about, don’t say anything about growth,” said Professor Kamper.

“And so this, that really raises a question about the whole concept. So what are we talking about?”

So, if there’s no consistent definition for growing pains, then are all these supposed cases of it actually something else?

Why These Results Are Important

Professor Kamper pointed out that research about pain in children is only “a tenth” of the size of research in adults. And this raises two main questions.

“One, it means we often don’t understand what’s going on for these children. And so it makes it very hard to advise parents and very hard to treat them and that sort of thing. 

But there’s also this issue that having pain, particularly pain which persists in childhood means it’s more likely to have in adulthood as well.  And we do have a huge problem with chronic pain in adults.”

This means that some cases of early childhood pain could potentially be early stages of a chronic pain condition. But because of inconsistent definitions, these cases could be shrugged off as “growing pains”.

How Misdiagnosing ‘Growing Pains’ Impacts Diagnosing Pain In General

Diagnosing chronic pain has its own complicated history. Pain used to be exclusively thought of as a physical response to damage or injury. But pain can also be a complex biopsychosocial phenomenon, meaning the experience of pain can interconnect with biological, physiological and social factors. 

“Pain is a totally and inherently subjective experience. There is no objective pain. Yes, that injury and those biological issues may be relevant and are often relevant, but there’s a whole raft of other things which are always relevant as well,” said Professor Kemper.

That creates a much more vivid picture, a much more complex idea of what pain is.”

Since pain is such an individual experience, defining it can be tricky. Knowing that “growing pains” aren’t scientifically defined though is really important, because moving forward this knowledge could just help with earlier diagnosis for chronic pain.