Sleep is that all important thing that seems to be less and less attainable, especially as we age. In fact, recent studies show that 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (approximately 25 million) suffer from sleep apnea, a condition that is linked to hypertension, heart disease, and cognitive impairment. For many — approximately 10 percent of Americans — this can become chronic, with little or no relief in sight.1
While there are several conditions that fall under sleep apnea, there is one that affects 10 percent of the U.S. population, including children. It is Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS).
What is RLS?
Restless Leg Syndrome is characterized as an irresistible urge to move your legs. This urge is often described as a tingling, or an electric shock moving up or throughout the legs. Some describe it as pulsing or burning causing a relentless need to move their legs immediately.2 RLS is often misdiagnosed as “growing pains” in children.
Restless Leg Syndrome is characterized as a sleep disorder because symptoms are most severe in the nighttime hours. RLS can profoundly disrupt a person’s sleep and daily life. It is the most common sleep-related movement disorder, and one of the most common sleep disorders overall.
Who gets RLS?
The onset of RLS occurs as mentioned, as early as childhood, with 1 million school-aged children experiencing symptoms.3 RLS has been found to increase in instances and severity as the years go on. And while both men and women experience it, women are twice as likely to experience than their male counterparts. This is largely due to pregnancy, research has found that women who have never experienced pregnancy had the same risk of RLS as men.4
Studies found that RLS also increases with age in European and North American countries but not in Asian countries.5
How is RLS diagnosed and what are the symptoms?
To date, there is no medical test to diagnose Restless Leg Syndrome. The diagnosis is largely, if not solely determined based on answers to questions that a patient gives. The questions the doctor could ask include:
- Do you feel the urge to kick your legs at night or during sleep?
- Do you have leg movement that is due to discomfort or painful sensations?
- Do you feel the need to walk or rub your legs to relieve your discomfort?
- Are your symptoms worse when at rest?
- Are your symptoms worse later in the day or at night?
What causes Restless Leg Syndrome?
There have been several studies to determine what causes Restless Leg Syndrome, and the cause is still largely unknown.
Some studies, however, have found that there is a genetic component. They have found this in families when the patient that is experiencing symptoms is under 40 years old. There has also been evidence linking low levels of iron in the brain.6 Other findings suggest that RLS is related to a dysfunction in the basal ganglia, a section of the brain that controls movement. The basal ganglia produce the chemical dopamine. Dopamine is needed to help the brain send signals to the body to move purposefully and smoothly. When this part of the brain isn’t working properly, pathways are disrupted, resulting in involuntary movements.7
There have been some who have attributed their RLS to Tension myositis syndrome (TMS), also known as the mind-body syndrome. While no known medical studies have linked the two, several RLS sufferers have found relief and even complete healing from the pain after accepting the TMS diagnosis.8
Unfortunately, many who endure RLS have also been found to have conditions like Parkinson’s disease, end-stage renal disease and hemodialysis and neuropathy (nerve damage.) Certain antinausea and antipsychotic medications may aggravate RLS symptoms. Antidepressants that increase serotonin, as well as some cold and allergy medications that contain older antihistamines, carry risk factors for RLS. The use of alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine can also increase symptoms. Many women who are pregnant, particularly during the last trimester have reported having Restless Leg Syndrome, although it is found in most cases to subside or completely go away a few weeks after birth.9
Finally, if it doesn’t add insult to injury, sleep deprivation may also aggravate or trigger RLS symptoms in some people.
Is there treatment for RLS?
Because there is not a definitive cause for RLS, treatment is limited to treating symptoms. Some treatments include:
- Get a massage: Having someone massage your legs may help increase blood flow to promote healing. The power of human touch can also be healing, which is another benefit of massage.
- Maintain a healthy diet: You get out of your body what you put into it, so it is always a good idea to have a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, healthy grains, and plenty of water. In the case of RLS having a possible link to low iron, maybe adjust your diet to include more iron.
- Regular physical exercise: RLS sufferers describe the insatiable need to move, so it is possible to offset it by getting plenty of physical exercise.
- Keep busy: Many patients have noted that RLS symptoms increase the more the pain is focused on, and the more they fear the onset. Find productive and stress-relieving things to focus on like reading, listening to music, doing yard work, to distract your mind from focusing on the pain
- Meditation and Yoga: Meditation and Yoga has provided many RLS sufferers relief by refocusing the mind and body in a positive way.10
- Keep a journal: Not all RLS sufferers experience the same symptoms or causes. By keeping a journal, you can determine your own triggers, and make adjustments accordingly.
- Muscle relaxants: When the pain is too much to bear, making it difficult to do any of the aforementioned things, taking a muscle relaxant like Ibuprofen may be able to take the edge off so you can work on the things you need to. And eventually, you may find that you will be able to get your RLS under control enough, that you won’t need to take this medication as often or at all.
- Sleep: It’s a little ironic that the very thing that is difficult to attain is one thing that can help you with your RLS symptoms. However, getting sleep is imperative to the healing process of both the body and mind. By taking the above measures, you should be able to get more rest, and as a result, your body has a good chance of healing and recovering from this often debilitating condition.