“He has too much energy in his legs!” A mother was trying to describe over the phone what would turn out to be restless legs syndrome in her 11-year old son.
The boy himself said that when he would lay on the couch watching videos, or when he tried to go to bed, he would feel like there were “creepy crawlies” on his legs. He even said that it hurt sometimes.
The creepy crawlies were becoming so frequent that the boy was having trouble falling asleep. He was even having trouble staying asleep. He would wake up in the middle of the night and ask his mother to massage his legs. Now he was having trouble staying awake in school.
What is Restless Legs Syndrome?
It’s a good question. We can only describe restless legs syndrome (RLS) in the words of the people who suffer from it. It is not only a problem for adults. It turns out that about 1.5 million American children have it, according to the Restless Legs Foundation.
There is no test for RLS. It’s a so-called “clinical diagnosis”. That means that the person suffering from the condition describes the symptoms, or an observer records the signs. But modern medicine has found no marker or independent measurement to confirm that RLS exists.
Children with RLS use an incredibly creative array of phrases to describe it. They say their legs feel “itchy”, or “like pins and needles”. The common thread is that the child reports an urge to move his legs. This seems to be the only way to make the sensation go away. It becomes worse when they are laying down or otherwise at rest.
Other Signs of Restless Legs Syndrome
Because kids with RLS have trouble sleeping, they tend to get drowsy during the day. Often the only sign of this sleep deprivation is bad behavior, or school problems. Sometimes children are mis-diagnosed as having ADHD because of their inability to keep still and their distractibility. In fact, these kids are simply sleep-deprived!
Is it Restless Legs Syndrome or Something Else?
It’s a good question. Some parents think their children have “growing pains”. This is another common occurrence in childhood that we cannot easily explain. Children with growing pains complain that their legs hurt at night. The pain is often relieved by massage. This is a similar description of RLS, only less severe. I believe that growing pains and RLS live on the same spectrum. But that’s because I’m a lumper and not a splitter.
What Causes RLS?
Another good question. Like anything we cannot test or measure, it’s impossible to pin it down. What we can say is that genetics may have something to do with it. Many children with RLS have parents who have it, or had it as children. There also seems to be a strong association with iron-deficiency anemia and RLS. Your pediatrician will often test your child for ferritin, a substance that binds iron in the blood. If it turns out that the child is ferritin-deficient, the doctor may recommend an iron supplement. However, there is no clear evidence at present that giving iron supplements cures RLS. For now, the experts tell us that it is a life-long condition.
But wait! That does not mean that the symptoms of restless legs syndrome cannot be controlled! It turns out that some of our oldest and best standbys for the treatment of sleep disorders can help in RLS:
- Keep to a routine that is as regular and predictable as possible. Routines are good for sleep.
- Reduce stress to the greatest extent possible.
- In very rare cases, a doctor may suggest medication to treat RLS. It should be stressed that this is done as a last resort, and only if the child’s loss of sleep is severely affecting her health.
Because healthy sleep habits can help reduce the symptoms of RLS, a consultation with a sleep coach may be a good idea! Go ahead and contact me if you need help.