Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a complex disorder that causes uncomfortable sensations in your legs during rest or sleep. These unpleasant sensations trigger an intense and irrepressible urge to seek immediate relief through physical movement.
For up to 10% of people in the United States, RLS is a full-blown sleep disorder that makes it difficult or even impossible to get a good night’s rest. If you’re one of them, the team of sleep medicine experts at ECCA can help.
When it comes to managing RLS and attaining long-lasting symptom relief, no treatment plan is complete unless it addresses the condition’s underlying causes and contributing factors. Here’s what you should know.
Understanding restless leg syndrome
RLS — also known as Willis-Ekbom disease — causes uncomfortable or achy sensations in your resting legs that can only be eased or soothed through movement.
People with RLS often describe near-constant feelings of creeping, crawling, throbbing, itching, or aching deep within their legs. These unbearable sensations usually emerge during sleep, but milder symptoms can also appear during extended periods of sitting.
RLS is primarily classified as a sleep disorder because its symptoms are brought on by rest and sleep. It’s also classified as a movement disorder, as its symptoms trigger an overwhelming urge to move, either by stretching or jiggling the legs, or by standing and walking.
Although it’s generally treated as a sleep/movement disorder, RLS is perhaps most accurately characterized as a neurological sensory disorder, meaning its symptoms are actually produced from within the brain.
What causes restless leg syndrome?
While it can be difficult to pinpoint a specific cause or set of factors that gives rise to an individual case of RLS, researchers do know a lot about the underlying problems and conditions that have been definitively linked to RLS.
It’s been established that RLS has a genetic component — up to 92% of people with RLS have at least one close (first-degree) relative with the disorder — and researchers have also discovered the specific gene variants that are associated with the condition.
Evidence suggests that RLS may also be linked to a disruption in the dopamine pathways of your brain. Dopamine is a brain chemical that promotes controlled muscle movement; disrupted dopamine pathways often lead to involuntary muscle movement.
RLS can also be triggered or worsened by a variety of medical problems, ranging from a simple iron deficiency to chronic illness — people who live with diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, kidney disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia have a greater risk of developing RLS.
Medication and stimulants
Anti-nausea drugs, antidepressants, and allergy medications can contribute to the development of RLS; caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol tend to make an existing RLS disorder worse.
Sleep deprivation from a separate sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, can trigger or intensify RLS. Likewise, untreated RLS can give rise to a separate sleep disorder like insomnia.
RLS is more common among pregnant women, particularly in the last trimester — up to one in three pregnant women experience RLS in their third trimester. Most pregnancy-related cases of RLS are resolved within the first few weeks of delivery.
A comprehensive treatment approach
While there’s no specific test for RLS, the team at ECCA can evaluate your symptoms using the diagnostic criteria put forward by the International Restless Leg Syndrome Study Group.
Beyond analyzing the nature, severity, frequency, and timing of your symptoms, this detailed evaluation also requires a thorough investigation into other possible explanations or causes.
Because each RLS case is as unique as the person it affects, there’s no single therapy or medication that works for all RLS patients. Even so, many patients achieve considerable relief simply by managing any associated health conditions and addressing any known triggers.
This may mean taking steps to reverse an iron deficiency, manage your diabetes, treat another major sleep disorder, reduce your reliance on caffeine, or quit smoking for good.
Simple lifestyle changes like getting regular exercise and maintaining a uniform sleep schedule can go a long way in relieving mild to moderate RLS. If your symptoms are severe, however, medication may be the most effective way to attain relief and help you sleep through the night.
To find the RLS treatment approach that’s right for you, call your nearest ECCA office in Hartford, Manchester, or South Windsor, Connecticut, today, or use the easy online booking tool to schedule an appointment any time.