Image of small child with teddy bear holding onto mom's leg

And here's what you can do to help alleviate the symptoms.

By Jenn Savedge

It's the middle of the night and your tween-aged child cries out in pain. When you get to her room she's in a puddle of tears complaining about the pain in her legs. Although it may seem alarming, it may be nothing more than growing pains. But how can you know for sure? And what can you do to help ease the pain?

Dr. Marnie Baker, a pediatrician from Saddleback Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California, gave us the lowdown on these mysterious symptoms and what parents can do to help their kids through this painful stage of growing up.

Are growing pains real?

"There is no scientific proof that growing pains are truly caused by rapid bone, muscle or ligament growth," said Baker, "But any parent can tell you they are real, including myself, as a mom of two school-age boys," she added. Health experts don't know the exact cause of growing pains, but they may be linked to a child's level of activity during the day.

What are the symptoms?

According to Baker, the primary symptom of growing pains is discomfort in the lower legs — thighs, calves, behind the knees, ankles — that most often occurs at night. Baker says her patients describe the pain as severe, deep and aching. The pain usually occurs in both legs and it may keep your child from falling asleep or wake him up at night. Growing pains can affect kids when they are toddler-aged and then again between the ages of 8-12.

How can you be sure it's growing pains and not something else?

"Growing pains have specific features that help distinguish them from other potentially more serious conditions," noted Baker. They occur in a generalized location, such as both knees, or the lower legs, but not in any one specific spot. Baker explained that there are no physical findings along with growing pains. In other words, there shouldn't be any swelling, redness or warmth in the location of the pain. Growing pains should not cause limping or keep kids from being active during the day. They should also occur intermittently, according to Baker and not for long periods of time. If your child experiences any of these other symptoms or if the symptoms seem to keep them from heading out to play during the day, Baker says it's time to get them checked out by a pediatrician.

So what can parents do to help?

Growing pains are alarming for parents and upsetting for kids, but the best thing you can do for your kids is reassure them with a cuddle and a hug. To help relieve the pain, try a gentle massage, a few minutes with a heating pad, or a dose of ibuprofen. "Teaching your child that growing pains are common and if they are awakened by them, to give their legs a rub and go back to sleep is the simplest way to ensure a good night’s sleep for all," says Baker.