Can’t keep your legs still? The neurological disorder restless legs syndrome (RLS) affects about 10 percent of the population, and twice as many women as men, often occurring more in middle age or later in life. No laughing matter, RLS can be mild to severe and causes unpleasant feelings in the legs, such as throbbing or pulling, and an uncontrollable urge to move them. The “restless legs” occur at night when you’re resting or relaxing and moving the legs eases the discomfort. People with RLS often have trouble falling asleep. RLS symptoms can disappear for weeks or months but typically become more severe over time.
Restless legs causes Sometimes RLS is incorrectly attributed to insomnia, stress or muscle cramps. The cause is unknown but genetics may play a role; RLS is often found in families. Low levels of iron in the brain or a dysfunction in the brain neurotransmitter dopamine, needed for smooth movement, may also contribute to RLS. (People with Parkinson’s disease often have RLS.) Certain situations can trigger RLS, such as sitting for a long time in a car, long flights or alcohol use. And people with certain conditions, such as anemia, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and diabetes, those taking certain medications, such as antidepressants and pregnant women can also experience RLS.
Restless legs symptoms When sitting or lying down, you’ll feel uncomfortable sensations in your legs, and possibly arms, trunk or head. Moving the leg or limb relieves the symptoms so people with RLS are often in constant motion to prevent the feelings and may toss and turn while in bed. Symptoms are typically worse at night and disappear early in the morning. In severe cases, symptoms occur more than twice weekly and have a serious affect on sleep and quality of life. About 80 percent of RLS sufferers also experience periodic limb movement of sleep (PLMS), involuntary leg twitching every 20 to 30 seconds during sleep.
Restless legs diagnosis/tests While there is no test to confirm a diagnosis of RLS, talk to your doctor who will ask you about your symptoms and conduct a physical and neurological exam. She may ask about your family history and the medications you’re taking. Your doctor may try to rule out other medical conditions, with blood tests. Sometimes, sleep studies, such as polysomnography, a test to record your movement during sleep can help identify RLS, so she may ask you to spend a night in a sleep lab.
Restless legs treatment There’s no cure for RLS but it’s important to seek treatment since failing to treat RLS can lead to sleep deprivation and exhaustion. Getting proper treatment can help minimize symptoms.
• Pinpoint the underlying causes Sometimes treating an underlying condition, such as diabetes, can control RLS symptoms.
• Lifestyle changes Avoiding or decreasing the use of cigarettes, alcohol and caffeine can help people with mild to moderate symptoms. Establishing a regular sleep pattern, an exercise program and taking iron and folate supplements to correct deficiencies may also help.
• Medication Drugs that increase dopamine, called dopaminergic agents, also used to treat Parkinson’s reduce RLS symptoms. Other medications, including anticonvulsants may also be prescribed.