Are achy legs waking your child up at night? 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. (1) And obviously parents suffer, too, because, um, sleep deprivation!
In this post we’ll dive into:
- Top theories about the causes of growing pains
- How to quickly relieve growing pains and help children get back to sleep
- Foods and therapeutic approaches that may help in the long-term
- When to see a doctor
So, what are growing pains exactly?
If you ever had growing pains as a child, you probably remember waking up in the middle of the night with intense leg cramps or a deep throbbing pain in your legs. They happen most often in the late afternoon or at night, often waking children up from a deep sleep. (2)
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 (aka growth spurts). (2)
Despite several studies that have set out to discover the “why” behind growing pains, there is no single cause that researchers agree on. That may be because like a sore throat – which might be caused by too much cheering at a football game, a viral/bacterial infection, or irritated mucous membranes due to dry air – there may be more than one cause of growing pains.
Here are the top theories:
- Nutritional deficiencies – Some studies show that certain deficiencies, particularly in vitamin D and magnesium, may contribute.
- Sore muscles from intense physical activity – Because growing pains occur following intense daytime running, jumping, etc according to some studies, researchers have suggested that muscle soreness is the cause.
- Spinal misalignment – In one small study, chiropractic adjustments to improve spinal alignment resolved complaints of growing pains
5 Natural Remedies for Growing Pains (That Start Working Right Away)
Of course, when your child wakes up in the middle of the night with achy legs you don’t need theories, you need something to act on. Let’s dive into some home remedies that work right away, then we can circle back to things that can help in the long-term.
Massage is a wonderful comfort measure for leg cramps and aches. 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.
According to Lawrence Rosen, M.D., pediatrician and author of Treatment Alternatives for Children:
“Gently massaging the calves or other areas of leg pain can ease discomfort from growing pains. You can use a few drops of lavender essential oil mixed with a tablespoon of massage oil to help relax your child.” (3)
Arnica oil or cream can also be used for massage with some guidelines. It was traditionally used by Swiss mountaineers to deal with muscle soreness, and according to The New York Times, “scientists have found good evidence that it works.”
Although arnica is considered safe enough for use in some children’s topical products like this one (which unfortunately has some other ingredients I don’t love), it should not be used:
- Externally on open wounds
- Long-term (more than six weeks on a daily basis)
- Before surgery
- With blood thinners
2. Hot Water Bottle or Heating Pad
Dr. Rosen, the pediatrician I mentioned above, also writes that “Warmth, either from a heating pad or hot water bottle, can help sooth leg aches.” (3)
3. Warm Bath
Instead of simply applying heat locally, warm baths are a whole body approach that can ease aches while balancing the sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous system. (4) In other words warm water supports relaxation and in may make it easier to transition back to sleep.
Tip: Every once in awhile I end up running a bath in the middle of the night for one of my kids . . . usually because they’ve tossed their proverbial cookies due to a stomach bug. When that happens, I always keep the lights low in the bathroom so that the bright light doesn’t disrupt their circadian rhythm and make it difficult to go back to sleep.
Because some studies show that growing pains occur following intense physical activity, researchers have suggested that muscle soreness is the cause. It seems a little 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. (5)
Magnesium is amazing at relaxing muscles, and it’s also an essential nutrient for building bones that many of us don’t get enough of. (6) (7) We’ll talk more about that in the next section on nutritional approaches that may help in the long-term.
For now, here are a few of the easiest ways to increase our levels (parents love it too because it helps with stress!)
- Epsom Salt Bath – This is really two remedies in one, because both the warm water and the magnesium will help relax the muscles. Here’s my favorite homemade bath salt recipe – lavender would be the essential oil I’d choose for easing achy legs.
- Liquid Magnesium – A few drops of this liquid magnesium can be added to water before bed or if a child wakes up. Click here to learn more about what form of magnesium is best (and why).
5. Essential Oils
Although I haven’t come across any studies directly related to essential oils and growing pains, there are some which show a benefit for muscle aches, easing discomfort, and sleep.
For example this Grow Ease blend contains four essential oils which have all have properties that may be helpful:
- Roman Chamomile – Shown to ease discomfort and support a healthy inflammatory response. (8)
- Lavender – Also helpful for easing discomfort and promoting restful sleep (8)
- Mandarin – Helpful for sleep and easing feelings of distress (9)
- Tangerine – Traditionally used to calm mild spasms
More Remedies for Growing Pains
In addition to the comfort measures above, here are some nutritional/lifestyle adjustments that may be helpful.
In a recent study, researchers found that only 6% of children who suffered from growing pains had adequate levels of vitamin D. (10) A follow-up 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. (11)
One theory behind why vitamin D might help is that inadequate vitamin D leads to low bone density, which may place “abnormal pressure on sensory nerves of the bone.” (12)
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 some experts theorize that it will “steal” from other areas. (This is true of hormones. In times of stress, the body will “steal” a hormone called pregnenolone to make extra cortisol that would have otherwise been used to make estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and DHEA.)
For me, supplementing with magnesium and a few other nutrients eased my restless legs. Read more about natural remedies for restless leg syndrome here.
Because vitamin D supplements – especially isolated ones- may not have the same effect as sunshine, I prefer to obtain vitamin D through wise sun exposure (when possible) and whole food sources like cod liver oil and pastured lard rather than isolated supplements.
Bone broth is rich in collagen, and something “many people forget about the structure of bones is that around 25-30% of the dry weight of bone is made of collagen proteins.” (13) As mentioned above, providing our little ones with the essential building blocks needed to grow can prevent their bodies from trying to pull needed resources from other areas.
On that note, 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. (14) 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. I have seen a pastured bone meal supplement from one source, but it’s not currently available.
Fortunately, bone broth can help with this, too! Although it is not naturally rich in minerals (according to this source), adding veggie scraps to the broth significantly increases its mineral content.
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 including cod liver oil (which contains Vitamins A and D) to maximize absorption. If you’re new to bone broth, here’s a quick tutorial for making it easily in a crock pot or in the Instant Pot.
As I mentioned above, magnesium deficiency is common. Because it’s essential for energy, sleep, bone health, muscle relaxation, digestive health, cardiovascular health, detoxification and more, I make optimizing my family’s levels a priority all the time . . . not just when we’re experiencing a concern it might help with.
Here are two ways to help kids get more of this “miracle mineral.”
- Magnesium Body Butter (pictured above) – Magnesium is well-absorbed through skin, which is why it’s often incorporated in baths or rubbed on the skin in the form of magnesium oil. Unfortunately for some people, magnesium oil can cause an itchy or uncomfortable sensation when applied in undiluted form. In my magnesium body butter recipe, I’ve blended it with coconut oil and beeswax to ensure that it doesn’t irritate sensitive skin.
- Magnesium Lotion – If you’d rather not make magnesium body butter, this is a pre-made magnesium lotion formulated especially for children.
Buckle up, because we’re going to take a hard left turn now and discuss a totally different potential 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.” (15)
More research outside of this limited case study is needed to see if this has broader implications for more children. I highly recommend you find a qualified pediatric-trained chiropractor if you seek this type of care.
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?
Please share what’s worked for you in the comments!
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This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Sheila Kilbane, MD, a board-certified pediatrician, trained in integrative medicine. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
1. Children’s Orthopaedic and Scoliosis Surgery Associates. Growing Pains. Retrieved from https://www.chortho.com/common-conditions/growing-pains
2. Mayo Clinic. Growing Pains. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/growing-pains/symptoms-causes/syc-20354349
3. Rosen, Lawrence and Cohen, Jeff (2012) Treatment Alternatives for Children.
4. Becker, Bruce et. al. (2009) Biophysiologic Effects of Warm Water Immersion. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321640882_Biophysiologic_Effects_of_Warm_Water_Immersion
5. WebMD. Growing Pains. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/children/guide/growing-pains
6. King, DE et. al. (2005) Dietary magnesium and C-reactive protein levels. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15930481
7. DiNicolantonio, James et. al. (2018) Subclinical magnesium deficiency: a principal driver of cardiovascular disease and a public health crisis. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5786912/
8. Lakhan, Shaheen (2016) The Effectiveness of Aromatherapy in Reducing Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Retrieved from https://www.hindawi.com/journals/prt/2016/8158693/
9. Babar, Ali et. al. (2015) Essential oils used in aromatherapy: A systemic review. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2221169115001033
10. Qamar, S. et. al. (2011) Vitamin D levels in children with growing pains. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21575536
11. Morandi, G. et. al. (2015) Significant association among growing pains, vitamin D supplementation, and bone mineral status: results from a pilot cohort study. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24633492
12. Vitamin D Council (2014) New study finds vitamin D supplementation may help reduce growing pains. Retrieved from https://www.vitamindcouncil.org/new-study-finds-vitamin-d-supplementation-may-help-reduce-growing-pains/#.XUIh0JNKjys
13. Kresser, Chris (2019) How to Keep Your Bones Healthy on a Paleo Diet. Retrieved from https://chriskresser.com/how-to-keep-your-bones-healthy-on-a-paleo-diet/
14. Martin, Elizabeth (1944) Report on the Clinical Use of Bone Meal Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1581604/
15. Barham-Floreani, Jennifer. Growing Pains / Leg Cramps Remedy. Retrieved from https://welladjusted.co/parenting/leg-cramps-remedy/#ixzz3FZsv3fOV