Space & Innovation

Growth Spurts Make Teens Even More Awkward

After a sudden height increase, the brain needs time to catch up.

Over the course of my freshman year of high school, I grew some eight or nine inches. In addition to needing new clothes every few months, what stands out most in my memory is the clumsiness. Finding your stride at that age can be a bit challenging when you're constantly tripping over your own feet.

In what should be one of the more reassuring studies for anyone in their awkward years, researchers today write in the journal Biomedical Engineering Online that the loss of coordination is common in growing adolescent boys. The brain needs to catch up to the sudden height increase.

"Following a growth spurt, the body needs time to adjust to changes to the periphery, during which time a teenager may walk awkwardly, while teenagers who grow steadily are able to handle growth modifications better," said lead author Maria Cristina of the University of Bologna in Italy.

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For the study, 88 15-year-old boys enlisted and initially simply walked at their own pace along a 10-meter (33-foot) corridor while wearing wireless sensors, which allowed the researchers to analyze various aspects of the adolescents' gait, including smoothness of stride and balance. This gave the team a baseline for comparison of each teen's motor control. Each teen's height and weight were also recorded.

The boys were then asked to walk again, but this time while performing a simple math exercise, counting backwards from intervals of eight starting at a random number, in their heads in order to test the cognitive demands on gait control.

After three months, teens that experienced a growth spurt were invited back for a fresh analysis of their gait. Growth spurts were defined as an increase of height of three centimeters (1.2 inches) or more over the course of a three-month period.

Between the "grown" and "not grown" groups, the researchers found significant differences in motor control. Although all of the boys showed diminished coordination while trying to perform mental math and walking at the same time, the "not grown" group walked more smoothly and evenly than the teens who experienced a growth spurt.

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Growing up is often thought of as one long, continuous process, but previous studies have shown that growth is not steady but instead happens in fits and spurts. This tendency helps to explain why some adolescents experience growing pains, an aching or throbbing sensation in the thighs, knees or calves.

A 2005 study out of Emory University on animals found that leg growth in adolescents typically occurred during periods of rest. Growing pains frequently turn up at night, sometimes even waking growing teens.

Being a teenager is all about adapting to new circumstances, a transition that guarantees some awkward and occasionally painful moments along the way.

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