Why RLS is a Problem?
Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a nervous system disorder that causes uncomfortable feelings in your legs, and other extremities, during the night. RLS can cause enough discomfort to interfere with sleep which is why it is considered a sleep disorder. This discomfort can cause you to wake up and move your legs to ease the discomfort, as well as make it harder to fall asleep.
RLS can be made worse by sleep deprivation, which can be worsened by worsening RLS symptoms. This creates a vicious cycle of sleep deprivation and worsening RLS symptoms. Also, people with mild or intermittent RLS may have their RLS go undetected or misdiagnosed, which in turn means their sleep deprivation may go with mitigation.
The good news is that this sleep disorder does not usually require medication and there are things you can do to improve it.
Is RLS Dangerous?
Beyond the side effects of sleep deprivation, there are no long term risks: RLS as a disorder is not dangerous beyond sleep deprivation. However, it is important to know that RLS can be caused by rare underlying causes, which are dangerous. This will be discussed in further detail later in the article.
What are the Symptoms of Restless Leg Syndrome?
The symptoms of RLS all have one thing in common: discomfort mainly in the legs, but sometimes your arms as well. This discomfort can range from mild, to uncomfortable, or even to intolerable.
RLS symptoms may be:
- Intermittent in the short term - one day symptoms are there, the next day they are gone
- Intermittent in the long term - may have symptoms for months at a time, and then no symptoms for months
- Chronic - symptoms are present all the time
When the discomfort is enough to keep you from falling asleep or wake you up in the night, or interfere with sleep quality, it is considered a sleeping disorder.
Symptoms include feeling the following in your legs (or limbs):
- Aching, throbbing, or burning
- Cramping (especially in calves)
- Buzzing or vibrating feelings
- Itchy feeling
- Feeling of pins and needles
- Creepy crawly feeling
- Irresistible urge to move your leg to relieve the discomfort
The good news about RLS symptoms is that they are fairly hard to miss in moderate to severe cases.
The above example shows the sleep quality of someone with normal sleep (blue) vs sleep with a sleep disorder such as RLS (red).
Underlying Causes of RLS
RLS may affect up to 10% of the U.S. population [WebMD]. The causes of restless leg syndrome are unknown - however we now know that there are a number of contributing factors, such as:
- Genes (nearly half of people with RLS have a family member who also has it).
- Sleep deprivation may trigger symptoms
- Affects both sexes but is more common in women
- As you get older, your chances for developing RLS increase
- Disease (anemia, Parkinson’s, and diabetes can cause RLS)
- Medications may make RLS symptoms worse (anti nausea drugs or antipsychotic drug)
- Pregnancy may trigger symptoms
RLS may go away naturally. In other cases, RLS may be a chronic problem without treatment.
Treatments for Restless Leg Syndrome
There is no direct treatment for RLS such as, for example, sleep apnea has with CPAP therapy.
Some treatments used in mild to moderate cases of RLS are targeted at lifestyle changes such as:
- Beginning regular exercise
- Developing good sleeping patterns/habits
- Reducing the use of stimulants
- Reducing the consumption of alcohol and tobacco
Non-lifestyle treatment methods include:
- Leg massages
- Hot baths and/or ice packs
- A vibrating pad
In some cases drugs may be used, but the effects may relieve or worsen your RLS (results are sporadic) and the effectiveness may lessen over time.
If you live in Alaska and are concerned that you may be struggling with RLS, consult with us to learn more information about what you are dealing with.