If the problem disappears like a bad dream in the morning, it could be growing pains. About 25-40% of children will suffer from growing pains at one point or another, usually between the ages of three and twelve. (source) And obviously parents suffer, too, because, um, sleep deprivation!
So what are growing pains, exactly? According to Dr Jennifer Barham-Floreani, growing pains are leg cramps/aches that occur “most often in the late afternoon or at night, and often wake the child from sleep.” (source) Unlike other leg problems, they are not connected with any swelling, redness, tenderness, fever, limping, rash, loss of appetite, weakness or fatigue,” and ironically they are not typically associated with periods of rapid bone growth. (source)
What Causes Growing Pains?
Though several studies have been conducted, no one has actually been able to pinpoint the cause of growing pains. My guess is that there probably isn’t a single cause any more than there is one cause behind sore throats. In the case of sore throats, it could be too much cheering at at football game, or a viral/bacterial infection, irritated mucous membranes due to dry air, or something else.
In this post, we’ll explore some of the possible causes of growing pains along with natural remedies that studies have found helpful. Spoiler alert: If your grandma recommended cod liver oil and bone broth for everything, she was on to something!
Natural Remedies For Growing Pains
In a recent study, researchers found that only 6% of children who suffered from growing pains had adequate levels of vitamin D. (source) A subsequent study examined this relationship by supplementing thirty-three children affected by growing pains with vitamin D for three months. In eight children the pain resolved completely, while others experienced a significant reduction in symptoms. (source)
One theory behind why vitamin D might help is that inadequate vitamin D leads to low bone density, which places ” abnormal pressure on sensory nerves of the bone.” (source)
I am not an expert on this, but I think growing pains are probably most often related to nutritional deficiencies. Though it is not quite the same, I used to experience severe restless leg syndrome due to nutritional deficiencies. Nighttime is often when the body chooses to “build,” so it makes sense that it’s scrounging around for building materials at night – if it doesn’t find what it needs easily it will sometimes “steal” from other areas. For me, this was what caused the discomfort.
How much vitamin D should children receive? Opinions vary, but I loosely follow the Vitamin D Council’s recommendations. You can find them here. The reason I don’t follow them strictly is that I prefer to obtain vitamin D through wise sun exposure (when possible) and whole food sources rather than isolated supplements. Fermented cod liver oil is probably the highest source of vitamin D in my family’s diet, followed by lard, which has up to 1,100 IU per tablespoon.
In one 1944 study (yes, 1944!), supplementing bone meal along with vitamins A and D was able to produce a “complete remission of symptoms” in all 112 children participating in the study. (source 1, source 2)
Both vitamins A and D improve the body’s ability to absorb the minerals needed to build healthy bones, so it makes sense that they be taken alongside mineral rich foods. Bone broth is similar to bone meal in that it contains highly bioavailable forms of calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium and other minerals, but in my opinion it’s much easier to work into our diet.
If my child were experiencing growing pains, I’d make up lots of bone broth and serve it in a steaming mug every morning for breakfast, plus make sure he/she eats high quality fats (coconut oil, butter, lard) and takes fermented cod liver oil (a good source of vitamin D and A0 to maximize absorption. If you’re new to bone broth, here’s a quick video tutorial for making it easily in a crock pot.
Warm Bath With Epsom Salt/Ancient Minerals
This is really two remedies in one. Since some studies show that growing pains occur following intense physical activity, some researchers have suggested that muscle soreness is the cause. It seems strange to me that the muscle soreness would spontaneously resolve the next morning as is suggested, but since there does often seem to be a physical activity related component I think relaxing the muscles is a great idea. (source)
Here’s my favorite homemade bath salt recipe -lavender would be the essential oil I’d choose for easy achy legs.
Buckle up, because we’re going to take a hard left turn now and discuss a totally different possible cause of growing pains: vertebral subluxations. (In non-geek speak, the need for a chiropractic adjustment.)
In a 2010 study, “two toddlers (a 2¾-yr-old girl and 3½-yr-old boy) were taken to the chiropractor with growing pains of several months duration. Medical care had thus far recommended offering Tylenol. In the chiropractic examination, spinal dysfunction (or vertebral subluxations) were detected in the lumbosacral spine of both children and chiropractic adjustments were made to help improve nerve function and spinal motion. After their first chiropractic adjustment, both mothers stated that their child did not wake at night with growing pains, and after completing a trial of care, both children’s initial complaints fully resolved.
It is important to remember the relationship that exists between the spine, pelvis and legs. These areas of the body are like a chain; nerve, joint or muscle dysfunction in any part of this chain can affect the other parts, and the nerves that extend from the lumbosacral region of the spine transmit signals between the legs and the brain. Any interruption to these signals can impair proper functioning of the body. Both children in the study above were found to have dysfunction in this lumbosacral region.” (source)
Though it doesn’t necessarily address the root cause of growing pains, massage can be a wonderful comfort measure. I found it helpful for my restless leg syndrome, which is somewhat similar, after I gave up tranquilizers and began searching for a natural solution. (I did eventually find one that worked for me, which I wrote about here.)
According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, growing pains may sometimes be a result of vitamin B6 deficiency. (source) Foods that are naturally high in B6 are tuna, turkey, beef, chicken, salmon, sweet potatoes, sunflower seeds, spinach and banana.
Other Dietary Changes
Some moms have reported that their children’s growing pains resolved when the removed problematic ingredients from their diet. For one child it was aspartame, for another it was gluten. Though I don’t know of any studies that are directly related to either of these substances, it makes sense to me that food sensitivities could play a role if they cause significant inflammation.
When To See A Doctor
According to the Mayo Clinic, you should consult “your child’s doctor if you’re concerned about your child’s leg pain or the pain is:
- Still present in the morning
- Severe enough to interfere with your child’s normal activities
- Located in the joints
- Associated with an injury
- Accompanied by other signs or symptoms, such as swelling, redness, tenderness, fever, limping, rash, loss of appetite, weakness or fatigue” (source)
What natural remedies for growing pains have you tried? How did they work for you?
Want more research-backed natural remedies?
No problem, I’ve created a free ebook for you – Kitchen Apothecary: 25+ Natural Remedies Using Ingredients From Your Pantry – as a gift for signing up for my newsletter. You’ll also get updates when I post about safe essential oils for pregnant/breastfeeding mamas, exclusive gifts and coupons (I was able to give away a jar of free coconut oil to anyone who wanted it recently!), plus other goodies.