Experts believe that the sleep of 12 million Americans may be disrupted by a sleep disorder that many are not even aware they have. The sleep disorder, Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS), causes sufferers to experience an overwhelming need to move their legs or other parts of their body when they are lying down or trying to rest. It disrupts sleep and leaves those with the condition feeling as if they did not sleep, no matter how much sleep they actually got.
RLS is a neurological disorder that also causes unpleasant sensations in the affected limbs and some of those with the condition feel like their skin is crawling or like it is being pulled. Generally, these symptoms affect the legs, but it can affect other limbs including the arms, torso, and face. Both symptoms are most prevalent when the person is not moving and are generally the most severe when they are lying down. While moving the affected limb generally provides relief of both symptoms, that relief is only temporary and symptoms generally return once the person stops moving. The unpleasant sensations and the need to move legs or arms both disrupt the quality and quantity of sufferers sleep.
Because those with the condition do not always associate the strange sensations or need to move with their sleepiness, RLS can be difficult to diagnose. Most people complain about feeling overtired no matter how much sleep they get and the first diagnosis many with RLS receive is insomnia. There is no known cause of RLS, but there does appear to be a genetic component. Initial research indicates that there may be certain factors that trigger the onset of the disorder like taking specific medications or having low iron, but these initial findings are not conclusive enough to prove causality.
Many people who have RLS also have another sleep disorder called Periodic Limb Movement of Sleep (PLMS). This disorder causes involuntary movement of limbs every 15-40 seconds during sleep. Most PLMS movements do not cause the person to wake from sleep, but just as the symptoms of RLS, they cause sleep disruption.
There is also no cure for RLS but it can be treated once a diagnosis is made. The most common treatment involves making specific behavior and lifestyle changes that are believed to decrease the symptoms of RLS. Those with the condition are encouraged to limit their intake of caffeine and nicotine, use supplements to correct any deficiencies in iron, folate, or magnesium, practice good sleep hygiene, and get enough exercise. In addition, hot baths, heating pads, and ice packs can be used to help ease the symptoms of the disorder when they are happening.
In addition to these changes, medication can be used to help alleviate sleep disruption. However, as the side effects of many sleep medications can cause additional problems, those with RLS may find that the side effects of the medication are more disruptive to their daily life than the disorder itself.