by Kimberly Allen, RN
Restless leg syndrome or RLS is a neuromuscular disorder that is distinguished by an over whelming urge to move your legs. As much as 10% of the US population suffer from RLS. However, many experts believe that number to be inaccurate as frequently RLS is either misdiagnosed or not recognized. Though both men and women can be affected by RLS it is more common in women than men. The incidence of RLS also increases with age though it can begin at any age including in children.
Frequently the cause of RLS is unknown, however, researchers do know that heredity plays a role in at least half of those diagnosed with RLS. It is almost always hereditary when diagnosed in young children. The hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy can temporarily intensify the symptoms of RLS in women already suffering from it as well as trigger the development of RLS in others. This usually occurs in the third trimester and usually resolves soon after delivery. RLS is no usually related to other underlying health issues however, it has been known to be associated with certain conditions like peripheral neuropathy, iron deficiency and kidney failure. There are also certain medications tat can cause RLS to worsen including medications that contain antihistamines, anti nausea and anti psychotic medications as well as certain antidepressants. Obesity and smoking can also lead to RLS.
The description of symptoms tends to vary from person to person. The symptoms are usually described as “uncomfortable sensations” not pain. Some complain of a “creepy crawly” sensation while others complain of “pins and needles”. These symptoms can range from very mild to unbearable. The symptoms can also be mild one night and severe another. Some people experience RLS symptoms every night while others only occasionally. Despite the range of symptoms and their severity they all have certain characteristics including symptoms usually manifest in the evening after you have gone to bed or they sometimes manifest if you have to sit for a long time like when flying or riding in a car for a long distance. People with RLS are able to receive their symptoms by moving around.
Some people never seek medical attention for their RLS, however, for many the symptoms of RLS are severe and significantly impact their ability to sleep which in turn can severely diminish their quality of life. When you see your doctor he/she will need a complete history and description of your symptoms. In order for you to be diagnosed with RLS there are 4 criteria that have been established by the International Restless Legs Syndrome Study Group that you must meet.
1. You must have an uncontrollable urge to move your legs.
2. The symptoms either begin or worsen when you’re at rest.
3. You are able to get relief with movement.
4. The symptoms either begin or worsen in the evening or at night.
If you suffer from conditions like peripheral neuropathy or iron deficiency frequently treating those conditions will lead to the RLS resolving. However, if you are suffering from RLS that is not accompanied by another condition the treatment focuses on relief of symptoms. Before trying any medications your Dr will recommend trying lifestyle changes. Developing good sleep habits is one of the most important things you can do to improve not only your RLS but it can improve many sleep problems. Regular exercise also can significantly reduce the symptoms of RLS. Decreasing or eliminating your alcohol and caffeine consumption as well as tobacco use can also improve your RLS symptoms. Some people also get relief with leg massages and/or hot baths or by applying either hot or cold packs to their legs. Should everything else fail to adequately relieve your symptoms there are medications that your Dr may recommend like those used to treat Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy. Muscle relaxants and sleep medications as well as opioids have also been used with some success. However, it’s important to note that frequently while these medications may work for a while they eventually will become ineffective.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.