Restless Legs Syndrome or Growing Pains?


Commonly thought of as a problem of the middle aged and elderly, restless legs syndrome often goes undiagnosed in children who are simply labelled as having growing pains or as being hyperactive.

Restless legs syndrome is a common sleep disorder affecting about 1 in 10 adults.  Characterized by an uncomfortable, and sometimes painful, itching or prickling in the legs and an uncontrollable desire to move the legs, restless legs syndrome is one of the most common causes of insomnia.

It is normally seen as a problem once you reach the age of about fifty and tends to get worse as you get older.  It’s also the ‘poor relation’ of sleeping disorders and unlike insomnia, sleep apnea or narcolepsy, all of which are studied in medical school and reasonably well understood by doctors, restless legs syndrome is given relatively scant attention.  One study even goes so far as to suggest that in as many as 3 out of 4 cases the condition goes undiagnosed, even when the patient presents with all the symptoms of the disorder.

This lack of focus on the problem, and general acceptance of it being a problem of the middle aged and elderly, perhaps hides the real extent of the problem and, in particular, masks the fact that restless legs syndrome may well play a major part in the lives of our children.

For many years now children have been complaining of symptoms at night which we have brushed off as simply growing pains.  In addition, our children often appear unable to sit still for more than a couple of minutes and we simply put this down to normal childhood hyperactivity.  The truth, however, is that a substantial number of our children are in fact suffering from restless legs syndrome.

The cause of restless legs syndrome remains something of a mystery although a good picture of the disorder is now beginning to appear and two elements of this picture should act as a wake up call to the medical profession.

The first element in the picture is that of a genetic basis for restless legs syndrome.  It is now accepted that this condition runs in families with one study showing that as many of half of all cases show a family history.  This is re-enforced by recent chromosome studies identifying a specific gene that is believed to play an important part in susceptibility to restless legs syndrome.  Perhaps most significant of all however is a report published by the Mayo Clinic at the end of last year which showed that in a study of more than 500 children nearly three quarters of those with restless legs syndrome had a family history of the disorder.

The second element in the picture is that of an iron deficiency in sufferers.  A number of studies by respected institutions, such as John Hopkins University, have shown that low levels of iron are common in cases of restless legs syndrome.  It comes as no surprise therefore that more than eighty percent of the children in the Mayo Clinic study with restless legs syndrome also showed low iron levels.

So just what does all of this mean?  Well, it’s simple.  If your child is having trouble sleeping and complaining of discomfort at night, particularly in the legs, perhaps there is a little more to it that just growing pains.  Similarly, if your child is constantly running around or jumping up and down then perhaps discomfort in the legs rather than hyperactivity is the cause.

Growing pains are normal in children, as are periods of excessive activity, and the odd night here and there is certainly nothing to worry about.  But, if your child’s growing pains appear night after night then there’s a good possibility that these aren’t growing pains at all, but are the symptoms of restless legs syndrome.

By Donald Saunders

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