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Growing Pains...Literally

Has your kid ever complained about deep, aching pains in their legs or other joints? If you answered "yes" then you know just how traumatic it can be to see your child in pain and not know what to do about it.

Fortunately, as a physical therapist, I do have an idea of how to ease some of the pain, but the process of getting there can still be extremely gut wrenching when you know your baby is hurting. I'd like to do my part to help you treat your little ones as much as you can when growing pains get the best of them.

First...a little background info. The term "growing pains" refers to a common syndrome of recurring discomfort in children, typically in both legs, later in the evening or at night. The French physician Duchamp first described this syndrome in 1823. Physicians have now coined new terms for this condition including “benign nocturnal limb pains of childhood” and “recurrent limb pain of childhood.” Research has shown that these pains often occur between the ages of 4 and 12 years.

With those statistics, all of my children are fair game...but my middle child (Addy) seems to be plagued more than the other two thus far. She has had the most exponential growth between the three of them, so I suppose that makes sense. General suggestions for treating growing pains in children includes rest, ice or heat, gentle massage, pain medication and a warm bath. But I have found the most beneficial treatment to be guided or manual stretching of the muscle groups associated with the pain.

Yup, good old fashioned stretching...but in a new and innovative way. This form of stretching is called active stretching because it combines massage with movement of the joints. Think of how it might feel to have deep pressure and massage on a muscle while it's working. Some people call this functional massage and use it to treat long standing muscle tightness and even contractures in various body parts and patient populations.

Here's the breakdown: Consider where your child's pain is...specifically what muscle or muscles are they feeling the discomfort in. Occasionally, the pain is near the joint, but even still, if you can isolate it to a certain area of their body, you can provide the correct support. Once you know where they are feeling pain, decide which muscle is being impacted and exactly what that muscle does. When you can figure that part out, the rest is easy. From here, you will simply get your child in a relaxed position and repeatedly move their body part into the OPPOSITE DIRECTION of the motion created by the muscle that is bothering them WHILE you are pressing gently (but deeply) on the muscle, massaging it. This is creating a stretch on the muscle during movement.

For example, let's say your child is complaining that the back of their lower leg is really hurting. We can identify that the muscle in that area is the calf muscle (gastrocnemius/soleus complex). That particular muscle group is responsible for plantarflexing (or pointing) the ankle/toes or for lifting the heels off of the floor in standing. Therefore, have your child lie down on their stomach on a bed or couch. Take the foot of the leg that hurts and press it into dorsiflexion, bringing the toes in the direction of their head, while massaging the calf muscle (from the ankle, up). Repeat the motion and massage simultaneously. This dorsiflexion motion is the direct opposite of plantarflexion, which means the calf muscle is being stretched and massaged at the same time.

Why does this help? Well, it's kind of simple. It is believed that growing pains are a result of the bone growing at a rate that is slightly faster than the muscle can keep up. Therefore, the muscles along the bone that is growing so quickly, is being stretched to its full capacity and causing pain and inflexibility with activity/movement. Gentle, deep massage WITH stretching alleviates this discomfort much better than either alone. It's basically double duty and I can attest that I have found it very helpful when treating my daughter's own growing pains. And if this can help even one other parent, I am happy to have shared.

Here's to babies with less pain and parents with less stress! Cheers!


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