If you are waking up tired and wondering why you just can’t seem to get a good night’s sleep, you might be surprised to learn that your legs may be the root of the problem.  More specifically, your need to move your legs while you are lying down may be keeping you from getting the sleep you need.  This condition, called Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) affects 10% of the adults in the U.S. and can have a significant impact on sleep and overall quality of life. 

What is Restless Leg Syndrome?

Restless Leg Syndrome is a neurological disorder that involves the irresistible urge to move the legs or other limbs while lying down or resting.  In many cases, people with this disorder also experience unpleasant sensations like creeping or pulling of the skin in the affected limbs.  Most of the time the urge to move and the sensations are centered on the legs, but symptoms can be felt in the arms, face, and torso as well. Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless Leg Syndrome symptoms occur most frequently during periods of inactivity which is why this disorder can have such a significant impact on sleep quality.  The urges and sensations are generally relieved, at least temporarily, by moving the affected limb.  RLS is often misdiagnosed and can be confused for other sleep disorders like insomnia or other conditions like depression.  

Although Restless Leg Syndrome can start at any age, it seems to become more severe with age.  Both men and women are affected by the disorder and there appears to be some genetic component.  The condition tends to run in families and initial research into the genetic component of the condition identified the first RLS gene which is present in about 50% of RLS diagnoses. 

What Causes Restless Leg Syndrome?

There is no known cause of RLS but the initial research into genetic components indicates there is likely a hereditary source.  Although symptoms can begin at any age, they most frequently start in middle age.  There are potential links between RLS and other conditions including Parkinson’s, kidney failure, diabetes, and peripheral neuropathy.  However, no conclusive research has been completed that indicates there is a causal relationship between RLS and any other condition.

Some factors like iron deficiency, sleep deprivation, and use of specific medication may trigger the condition.  Research into these factors and the causes of RLS have promising initial results that point to abnormal iron regulation as a potential cause of primary RLS.  Further research into the cause and contributing factors of the condition may help doctor’s identify more effective treatments and possibly a cure.

What are the Symptoms?

The two primary symptoms of RLS are the unpleasant sensations experienced in the affected limb and the overwhelming urge to move that limb to alleviate both the sensations and the urge.  RLS sensations have been described as creepy crawly skin, itching, tugging, and pulling at the skin.  The only relief is to move the limb or put pressure on it.  The relief is often temporary however and symptoms can recur off and on. 

Although most RLS symptoms occur while sleeping, any period of inactivity can increase symptoms.  A vast majority of people who have RLS also have another condition called Periodic Limb Movement of Sleep (PLMS) which is characterized by involuntary limb movement during sleep.  These movements can occur throughout the entire night and occur every 15 to 40 seconds causing significant sleep disruption.

How is it Treated?

There is no cure for RLS but it can be treated and controlled through the use of medications and/or behavior and lifestyle changes. The lifestyle changes recommended for lessening RLS symptoms include:

  • Limiting caffeine and nicotine intake
  • Using supplements to correct deficiencies in iron, folate, and magnesium
  • Practicing good sleep hygiene
  • Exercising
  • Using hot baths, heating pads or ice packs to relieve sensations

There are medications available to treat the symptoms of RLS that have proven to be effective in improving sleep quality and overall quality of life.  However, the side effects of these medications may outweigh the benefits.  Discuss the potential for side effects with your physician before starting any medication.