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What Causes Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)

Posted by Tyler Britton on Jun 4, 2021 1:29:00 PM

What causes restless leg syndrome - Anchorage Sleep Center

What is Restless Leg Syndrome and Why It’s a Problem

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a nervous system disorder that causes uncomfortable feelings in your legs (and other extremities) during the night. By “uncomfortable”, we mean that RLS usually causes enough discomfort to interfere with sleep (causing sleep deprivation) and so it is considered a sleep disorder as well.

Because of this, the primary problem associated with restless leg syndrome is sleep deprivation, as RLS causes you to wake up and move your leg to ease the discomfort. It’s kind of a vicious cycle, as the sleep deprivation may in turn also worsen your symptoms.

Indirectly, another risk for people with mild or intermittent RLS is that it will go undetected or misdiagnosed. The problem here may be mild but chronic sleep deprivation.

Symptoms of Restless Leg Syndrome

The symptoms of RLS all have one thing in common: discomfort in the legs (usually, though it can occur in other extremities). This discomfort can be mild, uncomfortable, and even intolerable. RLS symptoms:

  • May come and go
  • May be chronic
  • May be intermittent

Effects of sleep deprivationWhen the discomfort is enough to keep you up or wake you up, it is considered a sleeping disorder. Some of the symptoms include feeling the following on your legs at night:

  • Aching, throbbing, or burning
  • Cramping (especially in calves)
  • Jerking
  • 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, as long as they are not mild, they are often easy to identify – i.e., it’s hard to miss an irresistible urge to relieve leg discomfort. The outcome of RLS is one thing: sleep deprivation.

Causes of Restless Leg Syndrome

RLS may affect up to 10% of the U.S. population [WebMD]. The causes of restless leg syndrome are unknown - for many people it’s “just one of those things” - though science has illuminated some pertinent information and risk factors for developing RLS.

Some factors that influence the severity or onset of RLS are:

  • Genes are thought to play a role (nearly half of people with RLS have a family member who also has it).
  • Certain diseases include symptoms of RLS, such as anemia, Parkinson’s, and diabetes
  • Some medications, such as antinausea drugs or antipsychotic drugs, may make RLS symptoms worse
  • Pregnancy (especially in last trimester) may trigger symtoms
  • Sleep deprivation may trigger symptoms
  • Affects both sexes but is more common in women
  • May begin at any age (even in young children), but people who are severely affected are generally middle aged or older

In some cases, like RLS onset during pregnancy or after sleep deprivation, 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.

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