Every night, a silent thief steals sleep from children of all ages. This furtive bandit leaves kids cranky and inattentive, hampers school-day success, and puts kids at risk for a wide range of health ailments, from depression to ADHD. It’s Pediatric Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS), and it affects an estimated 1.5 million children and teens, according to the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation.
This disorder is well-known for keeping adults awake with leg pain, creepy-crawly sensations, and strong urge to move the limbs at night—but many parents don’t know that it’s a common pediatric sleep problem, affecting around 6 percent of children, according to a recent study. The condition isn't limited to children who can walk; it also affects babies as young as six months old.
Read on for surprising facts about RLS, and ways parents can stop this sleep thief in its tracks.
According to the Mayo Clinic, RLS is underdiagnosed in children, and it’s an often-overlooked factor in childhood sleep problems. Lenora Lehwald, M.D., assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Ohio State College of Medicine, agrees: “Restless Legs Syndrome is more prevalent than we realized before. Parents will recognize that a child doesn’t sleep well, but they don’t consider RLS unless they’re asked very specific questions about the symptoms."
If parents have restless legs, kids are more likely to have them, too: Family history is a significant risk factor for the disorder, according to new research. This is good news, because a child’s family history can help point the way to a correct diagnosis. And scientists are uncovering genetic risk factors for RSL—findings that could help pave the way for future research and treatment.
A “Growing” Problem
Increased understanding of RLS is prompting doctors to view “growing pains”—sharp aching in the lower legs at night—in a new light. Kids who complain of “growing pains” may actually have RLS, says Lehwald. Though occasional growing pains probably aren’t cause for concern, children should see a physician if growing pains are a nightly occurrence.
According to chiropractor Perry Chin, board member of the Gonstead Clinical Studies Society, RLS may be related to a series of falls or trauma to the spine or legs. “Toddlers and young children who are just learning to walk and run have abrupt falls all the time,” he says. “Generally it’s not one fall but a series of falls that can cause a misalignment of the spine and lead to RLS symptoms.”
There is no conclusive medical test for RLS, so doctors rely on patients’ descriptions of symptoms. That can make a diagnosis difficult for very young children who can’t describe painful sensations or restlessness. RLS is suspected in children if there is a strong family history of the disorder, says Maida Chen, M.D., associate director of the Pediatric Sleep Center at Seattle Children's Hospital. An overnight sleep study can also help doctors make a diagnosis by showing whether a child’s limbs are moving at night.
Research shows a strong link between iron deficiency and RLS; in a recent Mayo Clinic study, 83 percent of children with RLS had low iron levels. When RLS is suspected, doctors often order a blood test to determine is ferritin (stored iron) is lower than normal, and prescribe supplementation or dietary changes if needed.
Relief For Restless Legs
Fight the overtiredness that can worsen symptoms and promote deep, restful sleep with these tips:
- Overtiredness worsens RLS, so maintain an appropriate bedtime and a consistent bedtime routine
- Ensure that your child’s sleeping space is quiet, cool, and dark
- Ask a physician to evaluate levels of stored iron (ferritin)
- Encourage moderate amounts of physical activity (too much activity can aggravate symptoms)
- Try a soothing bath or massage before bed
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