Help for Restless Legs and Sleepless Nights

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As sufferers of restless legs syndrome (RLS) know, few things can get us off track as quickly as the inability to get a good night’s sleep. How can you calm those unruly limbs and get back to peaceful slumber? 

RLS – also known as Willis-Ekbom disease – is a neurological disorder. You feel unpleasant sensations in your legs and an almost irresistible need to move them. People describe the feeling many ways: itchy, jumpy, creeping, crawling, pulling, throbbing and more. 

Symptoms most often show up late in the day. You might be relaxing on the sofa or lying in bed looking forward to a good night’s sleep when, suddenly, that itchy throbbing starts. And when RLS strikes, the only way to get relief is to move those legs! You might need to stand up and walk around or keep your legs in motion while you’re sitting or lying down. 

It’s easy to see why RLS can lead to sleepless nights. Because it makes sleep so difficult, RLS can lead to daytime fatigue and, potentially, a host of related problems, from work issues to impaired memory and even depression.

RLS sufferers are not a small club. Up to 10 percent of the U.S. population may have RLS, with moderate-to-severe varieties affecting some 2-3 percent of adults. Though it’s often not diagnosed until middle age, RLS affects people of all ages, and about twice as many women as men. 

If RLS is keeping you awake at night, talk to your doctor.

What’s Going on Here?

Doctors haven’t pinpointed the precise cause of restless legs syndrome. Since it sometimes runs in families, it may have a genetic component. The brain may also play a role. Low iron levels there may be a factor, as well as a dysfunction in the part of the brain that uses dopamine to produce smooth, purposeful muscle movement. And though researchers cannot link them directly, RLS seems to have some connection to:   

  • Kidney failure, diabetes, and peripheral neuropathy 
  • Medications that could aggravate symptoms (including some anti-nausea drugs, some antipsychotics, and certain cold and allergy remedies)
  • Pregnancy, particularly during the last trimester
  • Alcohol use and sleep deprivation

Do I Have Restless Legs Syndrome?

To diagnose RLS, physicians ask four key questions:

  • Do you have a strong desire to move your legs, accompanied by abnormal, often unpleasant sensations?
  • Are your symptoms worse at night and better, or gone entirely, in the morning? 
  • Are your symptoms triggered by rest, relaxation, or sleep?
  • Are your symptoms relieved by movement?

To make a diagnosis, your doctor will likely rely on a physical exam, how you describe your symptoms and how they vary through the day. You might have a neurological exam or tests to rule out other conditions. Your doctor might also ask you to take part in a sleep study.

to determine if something other than RLS could be disturbing your rest.

How to Treat Restless Legs Syndrome

There is currently no cure for RLS, but a variety of treatments and therapies can help to relieve symptoms so you can get a better night’s sleep. Talk with your doctor about these options: Restless Legs small

  • Treating underlying conditions. If an associated medical condition is involved, such as diabetes or peripheral neuropathy, treating that condition can likely improve your RLS. 

  • Lifestyle changes. You may be able to ease your symptoms by cutting back on caffeine, alcohol and tobacco and eating a balanced diet. Supplements can address vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Moderate exercise can help, as well as leg massages, hot or cold baths, and applying heating pads or ice packs. Try to keep to a regular sleep schedule and limit or avoid naps.

  • Medications. Medicine can help, but no one medication does the trick for every person with RLS. The FDA has approved a variety of drugs to treat RLS, and other medications that are not specifically designed to treat RLS can sometimes help. Ask your doctor about possible medical therapies.

The Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation offers a number of coping strategies that can help life with RLS more bearable. Among other things, they suggest talking with others about RLS, keeping a sleep diary and tracking your daily activities, keeping your mind engaged and active, and beginning and ending each day with stretching or gentle massage. They also encourage you to consider joining or starting a support group. There are many RLS groups throughout the United States.

If RLS is keeping you awake at night, talk to your doctor. There may be steps you can take to help you get back to a full night’s restful sleep.

Small Steps: Pull over.
If your eyes droop while you’re driving, pull over to a safe spot and take a 15-20 minute nap.

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