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What Is Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)?

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a neurological condition that causes people to have an almost uncontrollable urge to move their legs. It usually occurs in bed at night, or when people lie down and try to relax. These feelings can also occur in the arms.

This common condition affects up to 10% of the population at some time in their lives. Symptoms can vary from mild to severe, with severe RLS occuring most frequently in people middle-aged or older.

What Causes RLS?

The cause is unknown. It tends to run in families. Middle-aged people and pregnant women are most likely to get it.

Certain medicines such as some antidepressants can cause RLS. People with iron deficiency, anemia, kidney disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, nerve damage, muscle problems, or lung disease have greater chances of developing RLS. It has also been related to tobacco, caffeine, and alcohol.

What Are the Symptoms of RLS?

Itching, burning, or crawling feelings deep in the legs make it hard to sleep. Moving the legs temporarily relieves the symptoms. Usually, both sides of the body are affected. Because these feelings can interrupt sleep, people often feel very tired during the day.

Some people also have restless fidgeting in their toes, legs, or feet while they sit.

How Is RLS Diagnosed?

The health care provider can usually make a diagnosis from just a description of symptoms. The health care provider may order a blood test to rule out other causes, such as iron deficiency. If RLS is severe, the health care provider may suggest spending a night in a sleep laboratory where sleeping and symptoms can be monitored.

How Is RLS Treated?

Treatment is aimed at reducing symptoms and enabling sound sleep. The health care provider may recommend self-help treatment and medicines. Often, a combination of self-help and medicines works well. Some drugs work better than others, so trying different ones to find the best treatment may be needed. Avoiding caffeine, cigarettes, and alcohol may be helpful.

If symptoms are severe and treatment does not work, a visit to a specialist in sleep disorders or a neurologist may be needed. A neurologist is a doctor who specializes in treating disorders of the nervous system.

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing RLS:

  • DO practice good sleep habits. Go to sleep around the same time every night, get up at the same time every morning, and sleep long enough to feel well rested.
  • DO exercise regularly.
  • DO learn relaxation techniques, such as meditation, yoga, and biofeedback. Biofeedback is a method that trains you to control unconscious responses.
  • DO try these methods to relieve the restless feelings in your legs temporarily: walk or stretch, take a hot or cold bath, massage your legs, or apply hot or cold packs.
  • DO call your health care provider if your symptoms continue even with medical treatment.
  • DON’T take herbal products without your health care provider’s approval. Some of these my affect your sleep cycle.
  • DON’T use caffeine, tobacco products, or alcohol. These may worsen symptoms.

Contact the following sources:

  • Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation, Inc.
    Tel: (507) 287-6465
  • American Academy of Sleep Medicine
    Tel: (708) 492-0930

Copyright © 2016 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.

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