Restless Legs Syndrome in Special Populations

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) causes uncomfortable sensations, and sometimes pain, in the legs or arms. It is also called Willis-Ekbom disease and is one of the most common sleep disorders. Studies estimate that between 5 and 15 percent of U.S. adults and 2 to 4 percent of children have restless legs syndrome. Women are more likely to have RLS than men.1-6

Certain groups of people are more likely to develop RLS, or need special treatment. These groups include pregnant women, children, people who stop taking opiates, and those with some chronic health conditions.

RLS in pregnancy

It is quite common for a woman to develop restless legs syndrome during pregnancy. In fact, about 1 in 4 pregnant women develop RLS, most often in the third trimester. Only 1 in 7 women have RLS in the first trimester. The severity of symptoms can be very different from one woman to the next. It usually disappears in the weeks after birth, often in the first month.6-8

Doctors do not know why RLS crops up in pregnant women. It may be caused by low iron levels, a vitamin deficiency, high estrogen levels, compressed nerves, or changes in dopamine levels in the brain. If the woman had RLS before pregnancy, it is likely to get worse. These women are thought to have a genetic predisposition to RLS.7,8

RLS in children

Restless legs is a bit different in children than in adults. It may be hard for children to describe their symptoms and leg pain may be mistaken for growing pains. Because childhood RLS causes poor sleep, it often leads to behavior problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Daytime sleepiness and concentration problems are also common, leading to poor performance in school. Children with RLS may also have nightmares, sleepwalking, and bedwetting. The most common causes of restless legs syndrome in children are family history, anemia (iron deficiency), and issues with the brain chemical dopamine.9

RLS during opiate withdrawal

Restless legs syndrome can happen when someone stops taking an opioid drug. This can happen even after short-term use of these painkillers for legitimate reasons, such as recovering from surgery. RLS can also crop up temporarily as someone recovers from a substance use disorder.10

Other people with RLS

Many chronic health conditions may increase a person’s chances of developing RLS, including those with:2-5

  • Anemia
  • End-stage kidney disease
  • Diabetes
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Spinal cord injuries

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Written by: Jessica Johns Pool | Last reviewed: June 2020