Restless Legs Syndrome in Children
Restless Legs Syndrome, also known as RLS, is a kind of sleep disorder that causes uncomfortable sensations in the leg and a need to move legs to get relief. The uncomfortable feeling generally settles in at night but it can happen during any period of inactivity. While the condition is generally associated with older people, restless legs in children is a very real issue. The symptoms of RLS in children tend to be written off as growing pains and left untreated, which is a mistake. Growing pains are real, but so is restless legs in children.
What is Restless Legs Syndrome?
Restless Legs Syndrome, known medically as Willis-Ekbom Disease, is a sleep disorder that causes uncomfortable feelings in legs and an irresistible urge to move the legs. The urge generally happens at night time but can happen when children are sat still for too long, such as when watching a movie or during a car ride.
Children have the urge to move their legs and stretch them to get relief. The condition also causes tossing and turning. Just over a third of all RLS patients (35%) say that the condition set in before the age of 20, characterizing it as children’s RLS.
How Many Children Suffer from RLS?
Restless legs affect approximately 1.5 million children and adolescents in the United States.
What Causes Restless Legs Syndrome?
One problem with RLS is that there is no single definitive cause. The cause of restless legs can vary from child to child. There are some cases where the cause can’t be pinned down at all. There are several common risk factors, however. One of the biggest is an iron deficiency. RLS can also be connected to diabetes, kidney issues, and neurological diseases. There’s also evidence to suggest that RLS can run in the family through a genetic link. RLS can also be the side effect of drugs used to treat allergies, depression, and psychiatric disorders.
Symptoms of RLS in Children
The symptoms of adolescent restless legs syndrome are similar to the symptoms of RLS in adults. The symptoms include;
- Leg Discomfort
An uncomfortable sensation in the legs is the most common symptom. Adults describe the feeling as a creeping, itching, crawling, tugging, throbbing, and burning. Children are a little more eloquent and have described it as feeling like they have “cola running through the veins”. Children also describe the symptoms as a need to move, kick, or wiggle. The sensations can set in at any point but are most common at night time.
- A Need to Move the Legs
Children find that the only way to get some relief from their symptoms is to move their legs. They start to fidget and move a lot, especially when they have to sit still or lie down.
- Sleeping Problems
It can take children longer to fall asleep because they need to move their legs to get relief. It can also be difficult for them to stay asleep throughout the night.
- Bedtime Behavioral Problems
Some children can have trouble staying in bed at the best of times, but it’s even worse for kids with restless legs. They have trouble staying in bed because they have the urge to get up and move around to get comfort from their symptoms.
- Daytime Sleepiness
Children will have less energy during the day because they have so much trouble sleeping at night.
- Problems with Behavior and Schoolwork
Children may have problems behaving and performing well in school because of their problems sleeping. They may also be more irritable and moodier at home because they aren’t sleeping well.
Restless Legs Syndrome Treatments
There are many different treatment options available for children and adolescents with RLS. These options include;
- Regular Exercise
Exercising is a great way to get relief from restless legs. Even gentle exercises like walking can offer some relief. Be sure to avoid rigorous exercise before bed, however. Exercises should be done early in the day.
- Healthy Bedtime Habits
Children, adolescents, and even adults with restless legs should only get in bed when the time comes to go to sleep. Beds should not be used for reading, watching television, and playing games. The more people use their bed for only sleep, the easier it is to sleep at night.
- Cut out the Caffeine
Caffeine makes restless legs symptoms worse. Don’t give young people with restless legs caffeinated products such as tea, coffee, cola, chocolate, and caffeinated medication.
- Comfort Aids
Localized comfort aids like heating pads and cold compresses can help with restless legs. Consider giving children leg massages to help alleviate the symptoms too. Stretching and relaxation techniques also work well to counteract the need to move legs.
- Iron Supplements
Get your child’s iron levels and folic acid levels checked by a doctor. A deficiency in iron or folic acid can lead to restless legs syndrome symptoms. Doctors may recommend taking supplements to boost iron and folate acid levels.
There may be medications available to relieve RLS symptoms. Your doctor will discuss any medication options with you. Medications for RLS generally aren’t approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat restless legs in children because they haven’t been properly studied with children.
- Cut Out Medication
As well as taking new medication for restless legs, your doctor may want to take your child off of other medications considered unnecessary. Some herbal medications, over-the-counter medications, and prescription medications could be making the symptoms worse.
- Dietary Changes
Restless legs may be connected to diet. You should check to make sure that your child is eating a well-balanced healthy diet. Talk to your doctor if you feel that diet could be an issue.
It can be difficult to diagnose and treat restless legs in children. Doctors have the knowledge and tools necessary to make the call on if your child has RLS or not and they can provide treatment options. Non-medicinal treatments are used first but your child may need medication if the problem persists or is too severe.