How seriously should we take our children’s aches and pains? The tummy aches that disappear when they’re distracted? The headache that appears at the school gates? The ‘achy’ legs that always seem to be bothersome before a long family walk? Parents generally develop an acute instinct for ‘pain’ that is about something else going on in their child’s life. But aches and pains in children aren't always just a sign of boredom, attention-seeking or wanting to avoid something unpleasant. So what could be causing the most common complaints - and when should you worry?
‘I’VE GOT A HEADACHE’
Headaches and migraine are very common in children - it's estimated that around half of all children will have had regular headaches before they get to the age of 15.
What causes it?
It's usually difficult to pinpoint an exact cause. Regular headaches could be a sign that your child's eyes need to be checked out. Stress can be a factor, as can dehydration, so make sure your child is drinking enough water. And headaches can also be a symptom of many common illnesses, including flu.
When to worry:
If the headache is accompanied by fever, muscle pain, nausea and/or a rash, get medical help straight away, as these symptoms could indicate meningitis. It's also wise to seek medical help if the headaches seem to be getting worse and happening more frequently. Regular headaches can significantly affect a child's quality of life, even if they're not a symptom of something more serious.
If there's a pattern to the tummy aches, it may be worth having your child checked for food allergies, particularly if they already have a condition like asthma or hay fever.
‘I’VE GOT A TUMMYACHE’
Again, these are very common in children – probably because there's
an awful lot going on in a child's stomach! Studies have found that
around 10 per cent of school-age children have stomach pains that are
severe enough to affect their day-to-day activities.
What causes it?
It could be something as simple as a change in diet causing constipation
or wind. Again, tummy aches can indicate stress. If there's a pattern
to the tummy aches, it may be worth having your child checked for food
allergies, particularly if they already have a condition like asthma or
When to worry:
If your child is losing weight, has a temperature, vomiting or
diarrhoea, blood or mucus in their stools or the pain isn't going away,
get medical help. A pain that develops quickly in the right lower hand
side of the abdomen, hurts when you put pressure on it and is
accompanied by vomiting, a temperature and diarrhoea could indicate
appendicitis. This needs immediate attention.
‘MY BACK HURTS’
Backache isn’t common in children in the same way that headaches or
tummy aches are. Around half of persistent back pain cases in children
have a specific or serious cause.
What causes it? Unsurprisingly, heavy school bags are a common cause. Bad posture and playing certain sports could also be responsible.
When to worry: Back pain in a child under four
should always be checked out, as should pain which is persistent,
worsening or accompanied by fever. Serious causes of back pain could
include infections such as ostoemyelitis, a spinal cord tumour, a spine
disorder such as scoliosis or even a fracture.
‘MY LEGS ARE ACHY’
The most common cause of leg pain in children is 'growing pains' (see
below). But if your child's pains don't seem to fit into that category,
it's worth further investigation.
What causes it? Our feet, knees legs and hips are
tremendously complex pieces of machinery, so it's hardly surprising that
plenty can go wrong with the muscles, the ligaments, the joints, the
bones or the tendons! Strenuous exercise, a fall, or even fracture could
be to blame.
When to worry: Again, persistent pain can point to a
problem. You might associate arthritis with older people but around one
in 1,000 children suffer from this condition, known as juvenile
ideopathic arthritis (JIA) in the UK. Indicators include swollen joints,
stiffness in the morning, a limp and a fever, so if your child is
showing any of these symptoms, see your doctor immediately.
DO GROWING PAINS REALLY EXIST?
They certainly do - and the official medical term is 'benign
idiopathic nocturnal limb pains of childhood'. They occur in the legs –
mostly the calves, shins and ankles – and are usually relieved by
massage or over-the-counter painkillers like paracetemol. The pains
usually occur at night, in children aged between three and 12. There
won't be any swelling or bruising and your child will be generally well
and won't limp. Growing pains are very common and children will grow out
What causes them? We don't know why some children
get these pains and others don't, particularly as growing pains don't
seem to have anything to do with the rate a child is growing.
How are they diagnosed? Visit the GP who will assess
your child’s general state of health and may ask them to do some simple
exercises, like jumping. If the diagnosis is growing pains, it's likely
that your doctor will recommend massage or pain relief.
Could they be something more serious? A few cases
have been reported anecdotally where children diagnosed with growing
pains turned out to have other conditions, such as junior idiopathic
arthritis or even leukaemia. Take children back to the doctor if they
show any of the following symptoms: pain in just one leg or affecting
the arms or back as well as the leg; fever; loss of appetite and/or
weight loss; waking every night with pain; reluctance to walk or play or
limping (especially in the mornings).
Studies have found that kids who are being bullied are more than twice as likely to experience headaches and tummy aches.
ALL IN THE MIND?
Studies have found that kids who are being bullied are more than
twice as likely to experience headaches and tummy aches. Children may
also feel stressed about friendship groups, schoolwork or things they’ve
heard on the news and this can result in psychosomatic symptoms. Make
sure you keep the lines of communication open with your child so that
you can reassure him.
A SYMPTOM OF SOMETHING SERIOUS?
Molly Harper, now six, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) a year ago. Her mum, Ella, describes what happened.
‘When Molly was about four, she started getting very tired all the
time. She couldn't walk far without needing to be carried, and she
wanted lots of sleep. She would run low-level temperatures which would
hang around for a few days, with no other symptoms, and then they'd go.
She was also listless and off her food a bit and she started, quite
gradually, to lose weight. This went on for about six months and during
that time she continued to attend nursery.
I took Molly to the GP on five separate occasions and was told it was
a virus. Then she developed a cough which the GP again diagnosed as
tonsillitis or a virus. Eventually, her face changed colour so I took
her to the doctor yet again and we were sent to hospital for tests. They
found she had a huge tumour in her chest which was compressing her
airwaves and causing the colour change. That was when she was diagnosed
with ALL. She is still undergoing treatment, including chemotherapy. It's
a very long-drawn-out procedure and has been hugely traumatic for all
of us but she is coping very well.’