Leg pain and stiffness in children can be a mild condition that’s simply part of growing up and will pass on its own, or they can indicate a more serious condition that requires medical attention. Identifying the exact location of the stiffness and pain as well as their triggers can help diagnose the problem.
It’s not just the name of an old TV show -- growing pains are a real condition that generally affect children between the ages of 3 to 5 and 8 to 12. Growing pains usually affect the thighs, calves and area behind the knees in the late afternoon or evening, especially after a day of extra physical activity. If no other symptoms are present and your child’s pain lessens when you massage the stiff muscle, she may have growing pains. Mildly stretching the legs and applying heat may also lessen the discomfort.
Children often get hamstring strains from “muscle overload.” One of the three muscles running along the backside of the leg may stretch too far and tear from a sudden impact, such as in running. The injury can be a mild strain that only causes pain when your child uses his leg, or it could be a partial or complete tear. Swelling and bruising can accompany a partial tear. If the injury is so severe that your child cannot walk without assistance, he might have a complete tear. Your doctor may recommend resting the leg, icing the leg to reduce swelling, wrapping the muscle and elevating the leg when resting.
If your child’s leg suddenly gets stiff and painful, a simple muscle cramp or “charley horse” may be the culprit. A muscle cramp can occur at any time and it most commonly affects the back of the calf, the back of the thigh or the front of the thigh. The cramp may last for a couple seconds or over 15 minutes. In some cases, you can see the muscle stiffen and spasm beneath the skin. Exposure to excess heat, dehydration, and low levels of potassium, sodium, calcium or magnesium in the blood can cause a muscle cramp. Failing to warm up before exercise, and even walking, can also trigger a cramp. Massaging, stretching, heating or icing can help soothe the muscle.
Only your doctor can diagnose your child’s muscle stiffness and pain and recommend the proper treatment. Even if you think your child only has growing pains, taking your child to the doctor can rule out conditions that are more serious. Call the doctor right away if fever, fatigue or weakness accompanies the pain. A number of conditions can cause leg pain as a secondary effect. If your child also has foot pain, flat feet may be causing the leg pain. Some children also experience leg pain, stomachaches, and headaches with dental pain.