The description fits what doctors still call growing pains, or benign limb pains of childhood. The suffering is real, though the source is still not understood.
Most pediatricians do not believe growing pains are actually related to the child’s growth. For one thing, the location is ill defined, not specifically at the limbs’ growth plates, and for another, the pains occur mostly in the age group from 4 to 12, while the periods of most rapid growth are usually earlier or later.
About 20 percent of healthy children get growing pains, usually at night and usually in the legs. They are somewhat more common in girls than in boys. Once other possible causes, like injury or inflammatory disease, have been ruled out, such pains are diagnosed as growing pains.
Usually, the use of gentle massage, warm towels, and perhaps acetaminophen or ibuprofen is all that is needed to let the child go back to sleep.
The pains have no lasting consequences, and the next morning some children do not even remember being awakened by the pains.