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Limping in Children

If a child is limping, the limp is usually due to a minor injury such as a sprain or splinter. But if there’s no obvious cause, see a doctor as it may indicate a serious underlying medical condition.

Advice for parents

If your child has started limping, find out if they injured their leg or foot or trod on something sharp. Inspect the soles of their feet and in between their toes for a wound or blister. If the injury is severe, see a doctor immediately.

If there’s no wound or sign of injury, your child may have an underlying medical condition that will need to be thoroughly investigated by a doctor, usually by arranging blood tests and an X-ray of your child’s hip.

It’s important not to diagnose your child yourself – always leave that to a doctor.

Childhood medical conditions that cause a limp

The most common medical causes of an unexplained limp in a child are:

  • irritable hip
  • a severe viral infection
  • juvenile arthritis
  • the thigh bone slipping from the hip socket (slipped upper femoral epiphysis)

These, and some of the more unusual causes, are explained in more detail below.

Irritable hip

Irritable hip (also known as transient synovitis) is a common childhood condition that causes hip pain and limping. Children with irritible hip may also be reluctant to place weight on the affected hip joint, making it difficult for them to stand or walk.

The condition occurs when the lining that covers the hip joint becomes inflamed, although the cause of inflammation is unclear.

Severe viral infection

Some viral infections can cause pain in the joints. If your child has a fever and pain in many joints as well as a limp, it is likely to be the cause. However, make sure you see a doctor for a proper diagnosis as they will want to rule out more serious bone infections like osteomyelitis and septic arthritis.

Juvenile arthritis

Arthritis is often associated with older people, but sometimes it can also affect children. This is known as juvenile arthritis.

Arthritis causes pain and inflammation (swelling) of the joints and bones. A child with juvenile arthritis will feel stiff, especially first thing in the morning, and not be able to move their joints freely.

There’s no cure for arthritis, but there are treatments that can slow down the condition’s progress and help to control the symptoms.

Thigh bone slipping from the hip socket

One of the most common hip disorders to affect adolescents is a slipped upper femoral epiphysis, where the thigh bone separates from the hip socket. This usually happens gradually over time, and tends to affect children older than 10 (especially overweight boys), although it can suddenly happen as the result of an injury.

If your child has a slipped upper femoral epiphysis, they should avoid walking or rotating the leg and will need to have surgery as soon as possible, to realign the bone and fix it into position.

Less common causes

Less common causes of a limp in a child are:

  • scoliosis: abnormal curvature of the spine that can cause the child to lean to one side
    developmental dysplasia of the hip:an abnormal or dislocated hip that occurred before birth or developed soon after birth
  • unequal leg lengths
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