Overview and Facts about Restless Legs Syndrome
Restless legs syndrome, commonly referred to as RLS, is a nervous system disorder that results in an urge to constantly move one’s legs. RLS is sometime considered a sleep disorder, as it frequently occurs at night and can interfere with sleep.
Signs and Symptoms of Restless Legs Syndrome
The primary symptom of restless legs syndrome is the desire to constantly move one’s legs, which can only be relieved by doing so. Patients often describe this urge as an uncomfortable itchy, pins and needles, or creepy, crawly sensation.
The symptoms of restless legs syndrome can range from mild to severe. They can come and go or be present constantly. In most cases, RLS flares when the body is at rest, primarily when sitting or lying down. Thus, it frequently impairs a patient’s sleep.
Causes and Risk Factors of Restless Legs Syndrome
The underlying causes of restless legs syndrome are often unknown. Nearly 50 percent of those diagnosed with the condition also have a family member with RLS, leading researchers to believe that there may be a genetic factor.
Other risk factors involved in the development of restless legs syndrome or the worsening of the condition include:
- Chronic diseases like Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, kidney failure and peripheral neuropathy
- Iron deficiency
- Certain medications, especially antinausea, antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs
- Medications containing antihistamines
- Alcohol use
- Sleep deprivation
Although anyone can develop RLS, it’s most often seen in women and those who are middle-aged or older.
Tests and Diagnosis of Restless Legs Syndrome
Restless legs syndrome is often diagnosed by a neurologist. This doctor will review the patient’s medical history, discuss symptoms and sleep patterns, and perform a physical and neurological examination. The patient’s medications will also be assessed to see if they could cause RLS symptoms or excessive daytime sleepiness.
Because there is no test to diagnose the movement disorder, the doctor may request a laboratory test to determine the patient’s blood iron level or to rule out other conditions.
Treatment and Care for Restless Legs Syndrome
There is no medical cure for restless legs syndrome, but certain lifestyle changes can reduce symptoms and sometimes even eliminate the movement disorder. Doctors recommend starting a regular exercise routine and establishing a healthy sleep schedule, focusing on sleep hygiene, such as making the room as dark as possible and using white noise. The doctor may also suggest eliminating, or at least decreasing, caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco use.
When symptoms do occur, they can possibly be minimized by:
- Hot baths
- Heating pads
- Ice packs
- Leg massages
- Vibrating pads
When lifestyle changes aren’t enough, the neurologist may prescribe medication to ease the patient’s symptoms. Some patients may have to try several types of medication before finding the right one for them. A drug that reduces restless legs in one person may make the movement disorder worse in another. Some of the most commonly used medications for RLS include:
- Dopaminergic drugs
- Narcotic pain relievers