When kids or teenagers feel aches and pains in their knees or other joints, they may tell you directly – or they may begin to act differently. Troy Smurawa, M.D., Director of Pediatric Sports Medicine at Children's Health℠ Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine, explains that while joint pain is rare in children, growing pains in the bones can be confused for joint pain and cause parents concern.
What causes joint pain in children?
There are a variety of possible causes of sore or aching joints, legs and knees in children. Growing pains are common, especially in children between ages 3 and 9. Children develop growing pains because as their bones grow, the tissues that are attached become lengthened as well, creating more tension and pain.
"Growing pains tend to be a dull ache or throbbing in the leg," says Stephen LaPlante, a physical therapist at the Children's Health℠ Andrews Institute. "Sometimes it challenges their ability to sleep."
But joint pain in children can have more serious causes, too. Dr. Smurawa says overuse injuries are a common cause of joint pain in athletes. These injuries can occur when athletes do the same motion over and over again. They could also have acute or traumatic injuries from falls, landing wrong or twisting.
"It is pretty rare for a child or teenager to have joint pain without some sort of injury," says Dr. Smurawa. "They may have a ligament tear or damaged cartilage inside the joint."
What are the symptoms of juvenile arthritis?
A rarer cause of joint pain in children and teens is juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA). JIA can develop in children at any age, and causes symptoms such as:
- Difficulty using joints
- Morning stiffness in joints
- Painful joints, especially in the morning
- Swelling in joints that last longer than three days
How can I stop joint pain in my child?
The right treatment for your child's joint pain depends on the cause of the pain. Stretching and exercises may help with growing pains.
"Growing pains get better as children get older," says LaPlante, "but we want these kids to be moving and active to help counteract the pain."
Physical therapists can also teach parents massage techniques to help reduce muscle tightness and pain. Heating pads and warm baths before bed time may also help.
If pain is caused by overuse injuries, it's vital an athlete gets rest from their sport or activity. Try using over-the-counter pain relievers, ice and massage of the muscles.
"We find that many kids just don't take a break during the year from sports," says Dr. Smurawa. "Most kids need a two to three month break to let their bodies heal."
Dr. Smurawa suggests following sport-specific guidelines to prevent overuse injuries. These guidelines include information on how many times an athlete can complete a motion, such as pitching, during a game and how much rest they need after a game or practice.
Additionally, a healthy diet can help prevent muscle soreness and bone pain. A healthy diet for an athlete should include:
- Plenty of water
- Lean protein
- Healthy fats from plants
- Foods rich in Vitamin D and calcium such as broccoli, kale, fish and yogurt
Vitamin D and calcium help bones grow strong. Your child's doctor may recommend a vitamin D and calcium supplement as well as time in the sunshine each day.
Though a healthy diet is good for every child, a diagnosis of JIA requires more comprehensive treatment. Children with JIA may take medicines to relieve pain and inflammation. They may also benefit from physical therapy.
"We're fortunate at Children's Health Andrews Institute to provide aquatic therapy with our HydroWorx pool and to also use our AlterG Anti-Gravity treadmill," says LaPlante. "These therapies allow children to unload weight off their joints and help them move freely. It can help resolve pain while strengthening their muscles."
When should my child see a doctor for joint pain?
Some causes of joint pain require medical help. You should see a doctor for your child's joint pain if they also experience symptoms like:
- Clicking noises in the joint
- Decrease in appetite
- Joint tenderness
- Red, warm joints
- Stiff joints in the morning
- Swollen joints
- Trouble using the joint
- Weight loss
"You should always trust your gut," advises LaPlante. "If your child starts behaving differently than normal for consecutive days, I would take them to a doctor."
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