What Is Restless Leg Syndrome?


Restless leg syndrome is a type of neurological sleep disorder. A person with restless legs will feel unpleasant, creeping or burning sensations in their legs and feet. Some describe it as feeling like insects are crawling all over them.

Restless Leg Syndrome Affects Your Life

Restless leg syndrome is described as paresthesias or dysesthesias, as noted by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The former is just abnormal sensations felt in the legs. The latter is unpleasant sensations that can range from uncomfortable to downright painful.

Research indicates that restless legs affect more than 12 million Americans. The condition is activated when someone lies down to relax and go to sleep. The sensations begin to creep up their legs. Their legs begin to twitch and shift. In some severe cases, people with restless leg syndrome (RLS) will beat at their legs to get the creeping feeling to stop.

RLS prevents relaxation and sleep. The sleep deprivation caused by RLS can lead to:

  • Daytime fatigue
  • Exhaustion
  • Problems with personal relations
  • Job performance issues
  • Difficulty with general daily activities

Lack of sleep over prolonged periods of time can lead to emotional, mental and physical problems that make day-to-day living very difficult. Some patients may rely on over the counter sleep aids to get some extra sleep. For example, some people will self-medicate with Benadryl, nighttime Tylenol and other sleep inducing medications in order to help them fall asleep. Unfortunately, drug-induced slumber cannot replace normal sleep nor allow a person to achieve all the stages of sleep they need for normal functioning.

Diagnosing RLS

The Mayo Clinic notes that Diagnosing RLS requires a sleep study and serious investigation by a physician. Symptoms of RLS and symptoms caused by RLS such as insomnia, stress, arthritis, muscle cramps, depression and more can mask the root cause of the problem. Many patients mistake their symptoms as being something else and fail to notify their doctor of everything that is going on.

Three basic criteria are usually required to meet a diagnosis for restless limbs:

  • Desire to move legs
  • Worsening symptoms during periods of relaxation or attempting to sleep (especially at night)
  • Constant restlessness when sitting for long periods of time

To determine the cause of your symptoms, your physician will take a thorough history include personal and family medical history and a list of current medications. A physical exam, laboratory tests to rule out vitamin or iron deficiencies or other medical problems, and a sleep study may all play significant roles in determining the diagnosis of RLS.

Who Develops RLS

This condition can develop in anyone regardless of gender, age, or ethnicity. RLS does affect both genders, but may have a slightly higher incidence in women. RLS can actually occur at any age, but most patients who are affected by the more severe symptoms of RLS are in their mid-30s and older.

Most patients who suffer from RLS also suffer from periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD). This disorder causes minor jerking of the legs during sleep. PLMD can also cause involuntary waking and disrupted sleep. Recent research also suggests that low back pain with bulging discs may also be associated with RLS as well.

Causes of RLS

RLS is idiopathic, in other words, there is no actual known cause for why some people suffer RLS and others do not. Genetics are thought to play some role; fifty percent of patients diagnosed with RLS have family members who also suffer from the condition. Several chromosomes involved in RLS have been already identified and more are under investigation.

RLS has also shown some relationship to biological and environmental factors such as:

  • Anemia
  • Kidney disease
  • Pregnancy
  • Medications (anti-nausea drugs, anti-seizure and anti-psychotics)
  • Alcohol and nicotine (Use may trigger symptoms if a person is predisposed.)

In many cases, correction of these factors can relieve the symptoms. Restless legs during pregnancy, for example, usually abate four to six weeks after delivery.

Living with RLS

Treatments can help patients with RLS to sleep better and to make adjustments to their lifestyles that will improve the quality of life. Learn more about treatments for restless leg syndrome and speak to your physician to find out what is the best option for you.

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What Is Restless Leg Syndrome?