Childhood Leg Pain – Causes of Painful Legs in Children

The term “leg” refers to the entire lower limb, extending from the hip joint to the feet. It includes the thigh. Pain in the legs can occur in any region of the leg and can affect any person. Leg pain is especially common in young children and in most cases, leg pain in children is not a cause for concern. It is often ascribed to ‘growing pains’ but this should not detract from the fact that leg pain can be due to a medical problem.

However, if the leg pain becomes severe and persists over a long period, then it could indicate the presence of some underlying medical condition. In these cases immediate medical attention must be sought. Many childhood complaints are attempts by children to get the attention of the adults. Leg pain is no different. The signs and symptoms need to be closely monitored to ascertain whether the complaints of the child are genuine or not.

Causes of Leg Pain in Children

The following are some of the probable causes of leg pain in young children. All of these causes may not be relevant for adults who are experiencing leg pain.

Growth pains

In many cases, pain in the leg might occur in children without any apparent cause. Such pains, referred to as growth pains, usually occur at nighttime and disappear the next morning. Both legs are frequently affected. Growth pains are not localized to one particular area of the leg. The pain may affect the back of the knees, front of the thighs, and the calf muscles. However, the joints remain unaffected, and there is usually no associated limping.

Growth pain is felt as an ache or a throbbing sensation in the legs. It can also cause insomnia in children. Children in the age group of 3 to 12 years most commonly complain of such pain in the legs. The cause of growth pains is not known. Since children in this age group are physically very active, growth pains are considered to be caused by an overuse of the leg muscles. Growth spurts in children of this age group have also been attributed to growth pains.

However, there is no evidence to support this concept. Unless some pathology is suspected, no medical investigation is warranted in cases of growth pains.

Restless leg syndrome

Restless leg syndrome refers to pain or discomfort felt in the legs while in a sitting or lying position. The nature of the discomfort in the legs is often described by the patients as aching, burning, tingling, creeping and crawling sensations that make it very uncomfortable to keep the legs still. Restless leg syndrome can affect both children and adults. Interestingly, the adults suffering from restless leg syndrome usually have a history of suffering from growth pains in their childhood.
Childhood Leg Pain – Causes of Painful Legs in Children

Read more on restless leg syndrome.

Fracture of the leg bones

Fracture of the bones that make up various parts of the leg is another frequent cause of leg pain. Even though fracture of the leg bones may occur at any age, the physically hyperactive and adventurous nature of children make them especially susceptible to falls and other injuries that may lead to bone fractures. Bone fractures cause local swelling and pain in the affected region.

Bruises can usually be seen on the skin overlying the fractured area. Walking becomes difficult or impossible in these cases. It is important to mention that child abuse is another factor that needs to be considered as a cause of broken leg bones in children.

Legg-Calve´-Perthes disease

Legg-Calve´-Perthes disease refers to a condition in which the hip joint becomes susceptible to fracture due to a temporary loss of blood supply to this region. Only one hip joint is usually affected. However, both hips may be involved in some cases. Legg-Calve´-Perthes disease can occur in children of any age group.

Boys in the age group of 4 to 8 years are especially susceptible to this condition. The common signs and symptoms of this condition include pain in the thigh region, restricted mobility in the affected hip joint and the knee joint, limping, and a shortening of the leg on the side of the affected hip. The pain in the leg may also worsen during activity and subside while resting.


Osteomyelitis refers to infection of the bone caused by a bacteria or a fungi. The bone itself might be the primary site of infection in such cases. Alternatively, the primary site of infection might also be elsewhere in the body, and the bacteria or fungi might reach the bone by travelling through the bloodstream. Osteomyelitis usually affects the thigh and the shin bones. Signs and symptoms of osteomyelitis include leg pain in the affected area, fever, irritability, and fatigue. In case of an open wound over the affected area, oozing pus may be visible.

Read more on osteomyelitis.

Osgood-Schlatter disease

Osgood-Schlatter disease is a cause of painful knees in both pre-teens and teenagers, especially those who are physically very active. Physical activities or sports that involve jumping, running, and rapid directional changes while running are most frequently associated with this condition.

Examples of some common sports that may cause this condition include soccer, basketball, ballet, gymnastics and skating. A painful lump usually appears below the knee region. In most cases, only one knee is affected. However, both knees may also develop painful lumps in some cases. Osgood-Schlatter disease usually resolves on its own when the period of bone growth ends.

Ill-fitting shoes

Ill-fitting shoes frequently cause painful feet in children. Since children rapidly outgrow their shoes during the growth spurts, they are very likely to keep wearing ill-fitting shoes and then complain of painful feet. Footwear fit must be checked at regular intervals in growing children, and shoes must be changed when they become tight. In addition, special shoes need to be worn for sporting activities to provide adequate support to the feet.

Flat feet

The soles of our feet normally have an arch that prevents the whole of the sole region from coming in contact with the floor. Flat feet refers to a condition in which the arch of the foot either collapses or does not develop properly, resulting in the entire sole coming in contact with the floor. It may affect either one foot or both the feet.

The arch of the foot develops by 4 to 6 years of age. Before that, it is normal to have flat feet. Flat footed children often complain of pain and fatigue in the feet after walking even short distances. Pain may also be felt in the knees and the calves.

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