Are Restless Legs Ruining Your Rest?

You know when you’ve been sitting down for a really long time—during a car ride, or maybe a boring movie—and you can’t wait to stand up and stretch your legs? Can you imagine feeling like that all the time, even when you’re trying to go to sleep? That’s what people with a common disorder called restless leg syndrome experience.

What is restless leg syndrome?

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder that results in an itching, stirring, or “pins-and-needles” feeling in the legs, which can be relieved by moving them. Disruptions caused by RLS during the night can seriously impair a person’s sleep quality.

Restless leg syndrome is a fairly common condition; studies have found that it affects 1 in 10 Americans, with 5 million Americans suffering from moderate to severe RLS. It is more prevalent in women and most common in people middle-aged or older, though not confined to these groups. In fact, 1 million school-aged children have the condition.

What are the symptoms, and why is it a sleep disorder?

The defining characteristic of RLS is a persistent discomfort in the legs, which can range in severity from mild to painful. These sensations tend to be stronger in the evening and to go away in the morning. They typically come on when a person is at rest, such as during sleep or a prolonged period of sitting down, and are relieved by motion, such as walking around, fidgeting, or kicking.

Restless legs are considered a serious sleep disorder because they prevent sound rest. Sufferers may feel the need to get up during the night and stretch their legs in order to relieve symptoms. Otherwise, involuntary motion during sleep can jolt them awake, often disturbing bed partners as well. This inability to rest can lead to daytime exhaustion and chronic fatigue.

What causes the disorder?

Scientists are still unclear about the exact causes of RLS, but there is evidence to support that it is related to an imbalance of dopamine, a chemical that controls smooth muscle movement, in the brain.  

The disorder also has genetic underpinnings. It runs in families, with 60% of RLS patients having a family member with the same condition.

Other conditions are related to restless leg syndrome. Chronic diseases, like diabetes and kidney failure, can trigger an onset of the disorder. Certain medications, like antinausea drugs, antipsychotic drugs, antidepressants, and sedative-containing cold or allergy prescriptions, can aggravate symptoms. Finally, restless legs are fairly common during pregnancy, with about 40% of pregnant women experiencing it temporarily in the third trimester.

Recognizing and Treating RLS

The first step in treating RLS is recognizing it, which can be tricky because it can be dismissed by patients and doctors alike as nerves or aging. In diagnosing the disorder, doctors look for the specific characteristics of RLS and sometimes consult the patient’s family history. Other tests, like a blood test for iron deficiencies, can eliminate other potential causes.  

An in-center sleep study, or polysomnography, can determine if a patient has restless leg syndrome or perhaps a more serious sleep disorder like sleep apnea.

Certain lifestyle changes and home treatments can help alleviate symptoms. Adopting a regular sleep schedule and exercise regimen, reducing caffeine, alcohol, and cigarette consumption, taking dietary supplements, and losing weight may help. Leg massages or stretches, hot baths, and using compression stockings may also assuage sensations.

There are some medications that can be used to treat RLS. These include drugs that affect dopamine levels in the brain, painkillers, and anti-seizure medications.

I think I might have restless legs

If you match these symptoms—or if you notice them in your bed partner (remember, RLS can be very disruptive for the person sharing the bed too!)—make sure to mention them to your doctor. Be specific about the type of pain you experience, when it comes on, and if motion can alleviate it.

If you think that restless legs may be disrupting your sleep, take our sleepiness quiz and discuss your results with your doctor.

Take the sleepiness quiz

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Comments

  1. Jack Dalley Reply

    These sensations tend to be stronger in the evening and to go away in the morning.

  2. fireboy and watergirl Reply

    Thanks for the quiz. It’s helpful much.

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