Teenagers often come to the doctor’s office with various types of aches or pains. Sometimes the pains are short-lived, and other times the pain may last for several weeks to several months. “Growing pains” is often the diagnosis given for aches that come and go. Having recently seen a few teenagers with these complaints, it reminded me of how these are not always growing pains but a signal from that body that nutrition needs supported.
The body goes through a tremendous amount of growth throughout childhood that must be supported through the teenage years. So often, girls and boys may suffer from significant pain in many joints such as the knees, feet and hands as well as the muscles, not knowing that the source of their pain is a nutritional deficiency. The rapid skeletal growth seen in puberty requires plenty of magnesium, calcium and other minerals and vitamins such as vitamin D. Teenagers are also hitting an age of establishing independence. This includes what they choose to eat and drink. So much of what is available for kids at school or through fast food is not going to be enough to sustain a healthy body. When the body is not getting the nutrients it needs, it will let us know. The joints will ache due to lack of nutrients to keep the bones strong, the connective tissue limber and lack of essential fatty acids to control inflammation. Soft drinks and coffee can become the beverage of choice for many. This means less water and also less calcium and magnesium as soft drinks will deplete these minerals.
The treatment for growing pains is to feed the bones and muscles what they need to be healthy. Minerals are a very important part of joint and muscle health. This includes calcium, magnesium and zinc. The diet needs healthy sources of protein such as grass-fed beef, beans and eggs to supply these minerals. Dairy products supply calcium, but if dairy products are not tolerated, be sure to include a lot of leafy greens in the diet such as kale. In order to better absorb and utilize calcium, the body must have optimal amounts of vitamin D. This is a critical point as vitamin D is so easy and cost-effective to obtain, yet low levels of vitamin D can missed. It is known to be a contributing factor to pain and should be checked with ongoing, chronic pain . The body also needs essential fatty acids (EFA) to maintain healthy skin and hair, as well as heart and brain health. Essential fatty acids make a nice win-win for teenagers with pain because they help control inflammation that is affecting the joints or muscles, and EFA’s can also help acne. Essential fatty acids are found in nuts, avocadoes (guacamole), pumpkin, coconut milk or oil as well as fish and flax. Three servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables (at least) will help supply the potassium needed to replace losses through perspiration and is much needed to prevent muscle cramps.
If the child is a healthy eater but still experiencing frequent joint or muscle aches, they are not meeting their body’s needs through diet. Supplements may be needed. The vitamin D level should be checked through a simple blood test called the 25-OH vitamin D or 25 hydroxy vitamin D level. The goal of this result would be about 50-70. Values less than 20 represent severe deficiency, but values even in the 20-30’s are lower than goal. Vitamin D can be increased with simple and cost-effective vitamin D supplements or with regular and increased sun exposure done without burning the skin. Calcium and magnesium can also be supplemented at 400-600mg of calcium and 200-400mg of magnesium. Essential fatty acids can be supplemented in two to three capsules a day with food. Muscle pain and cramps that continue in spite of mineral supplements may require additional help from vitamin E (200-400 IU). In addition, vitamin E and selenium may help with growing pains that occur below the knee.
Treatment for ongoing pain requires a healthy lifestyle. If the pain is not improving, check with a doctor about potential causes of the pain. Is diet an issue? If so, try to explain to the child how eating better will help them feel better. Are they getting enough sleep? The body repairs itself during deep sleep. Regular, consistent sleep in a dark room with the TV or computer off is needed to help the bones and muscles grow. Teenagers in physical sports such as football, basketball or wrestling need to know that sleep is an important and essential part of muscle building. I have also seen some vegetarian patients struggle with fatigue, muscle and joint aches because of the lack of certain nutrients. Typically, it is the ones listed above in addition to B12 and iron. This does not mean that vegetarianism is wrong, but children and teenagers who are vegetarian need to strongly consider at least a multivitamin/mineral supplement to meet the needs of the body they may miss from avoiding certain proteins. Water is another part of the prescription. Replace the super-sized soft drinks with water to keep the muscles loose and the connective tissues hydrated. Most sports drinks contain high-fructose corn syrup or many sugar additives that do not make the grade for optimal health. Water is truly the drink of choice.
Don’t be sidelined by “growing pains.” Talk to your doctor and listen to your body. Growing pains are usually a sign of at least one nutrient need not being met. Explore the diet, replenish the nutritional needs and help the body through those growing pains.
- Munns C, Zacharin MR, et al. Prevention and treatment of infant and childhood vitamin D deficiency in Australia and New Zealand: a consensus statement. Med J Aust. 2006 Sep 4;185(5):268-72.