Restless legs no joke

Sleep disturbances can make one’s quality of life change for the worse rapidly.  One of these is restless leg syndrome (RLS). Most patients who are severely affected by RLS are middle age or older.

What are the symptoms?
RLS has four main features, as defined in 1995 by the International RLS Study Group.  They are:

  • the need or urge to move the legs along with sensations deep inside the legs
  • worsening of symptoms at rest, particularly at night, when lying down
  • temporary relief when the sufferer voluntarily moves his or her legs
  • symptoms are more frequent earlier in the night

Sufferers of RLS often describe the sensation of restless legs as burning, creeping, or like insects crawling under the skin.  These feelings can range from uncomfortable to painful.  This can quickly lead to sleepless nights and deep exhaustion.

How common is RLS?
It’s estimated that as high as 10-15 per cent of the population may suffer from RLS, but only 3 per cent experience it often and severely enough that it affects the day-to-day life.  However, since sufferers of RLS may not seek treatment, or may be  misdiagnosed, the numbers may not be accurate.

What’s the cause?
The cause of RLS is unknown, although it has been linked to some chronic diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. In these cases treating the underlying condition may provide relief from RLS symptoms.  Some pregnant women also experience RLS, and this usually ends several weeks after delivery.

Low iron levels or anemia have also been linked to RLS and once these are corrected RLS symptoms are often reduced.  Caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco may aggravate RLS symptoms as well.

What’s the cure?
There is no single treatment for RLS.  For those suffering with mild to moderate symptoms, a number of lifestyle changes are recommended. 

Decreased use of caffeine, alchohol, and tobacco is a first step.  Vitamin supplements to insure adequate levels of iron, folate, and magnesium are also suggested. Some sufferers have found that a moderate level of exercise is helpful, although excessive exercise has been reported to aggravate RLS symptoms.

What’s called good sleep hygiene can also help: going to sleep at a regular time every night, getting up at the same time every morning, and keeping a quiet, cool, and relaxing environment for sleeping.

Simple measures may relieve the symptoms for some: taking a hot bath, massaging the legs, or using hot and cold packs. But these do not eliminate the symptoms, only help the sufferers to cope.

For more severe cases, some studies have suggested that ropinirole, a dug used primarily to treat Parkinson’s, may help.  Other treatments include codeine and related drugs, and anti-convulsants.

Learn more
Information is also available from the Restless Legs Syndome Foundation: