A limp in a child

If your child is limping, it's usually the sign of a minor injury such as a sprain or splinter. But see your GP if there's no obvious cause, as there may be a serious underlying medical condition. 

Advice for parents

If your child has started limping, find out if they've injured their leg or foot or stood on something sharp. Inspect the soles of their feet and in between their toes for a wound or blister.

You may need to take your child to a minor injury unit. Go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department if your child has a severe injury or can't put any weight on their leg.

If there's no wound or sign of injury, your child may have an underlying medical condition that needs investigating by your GP. 

This will usually be done by arranging blood tests and an X-ray of your child's hip.

If your child also has a fever or seems unwell, take them to your GP as soon as possible. They'll need to be seen urgently by a specialist to rule out a bone infection (osteomyelitis).

Childhood medical conditions that cause a limp

Some of the possible causes of your child's limp are described below. But it's important not to diagnose the cause yourself – always leave that to a doctor.

Irritable hip

Irritable hip (also known as transient synovitis) is a common childhood condition that causes hip pain and limping.

Children with irritable 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 (swollen), although the cause of the inflammation is unclear.

A diagnosis of irritable hip is only made after other, more serious, causes of a limp are ruled out.

Read more about irritable hip

Severe viral infection

Some viral infections can cause painful joints. If your child has a fever and pain in many joints, as well as a limp, they're likely to have a viral infection.

Make sure you see your GP for a proper diagnosis, as they'll want to rule out more serious bone infections, such as:

Juvenile arthritis

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

Arthritis causes pain and inflammation of the joints and bones.

A child with juvenile arthritis will feel stiff, especially first thing in the morning, and won't be able to move their joints freely.

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

Find out more about juvenile arthritis.

Slipped upper femoral epiphysis

Slipped upper femoral epiphysis, where the growing part of the bone in the hip joint moves, is more common in adolescents.

This usually happens gradually over time and tends to affect older children, 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. They'll need to have surgery as soon as possible to realign the bone and fix it into position.

Other causes of a limp

  • Perthes disease – a problem in the top of the hip, causing the bone to grow abnormally (read more about Perthes disease PDF, 176kb)
  • scoliosis – abnormal curvature of the spine that can cause the child to lean to one side
  • developmental dysplasia of the hip (DDH) – an abnormal or dislocated hip that occurred before birth or developed soon after birth
  • severe pain in the lower abdomen – this can be caused by appendicitis
  • unequal leg lengths – this has a wide variety of causes
  • a disease affecting the nerves – such as cerebral palsy
Page last reviewed: 29/03/2016
Next review due: 31/10/2018