Nothing feels better than stretching out in a comfortable bed after a long day. You’re ready to sink into the sheets and catch some Zzzzs.
But just as you close your eyes, a feeling of creeping, tingling, tugging or pulling sneaks up your legs and you can’t lie still. If this is your nightly routine, you’re not alone. An estimated 7-10 percent of the U.S. population is living with these types of symptoms, known as Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS).
This affliction can make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep. Often sufferers feel tired and unrested. Ultimately, affects from RLS can range from mild to severe depending on the discomfort experienced, whether you feel the urge to move around and the extent of your sleep disturbance.
What is Restless Leg Syndrome?
RLS is often defined as an almost irresistible urge to move the legs or arms when sitting or lying down. Patients describe this feeling as something akin to itching, burning, tingling, creeping or crawling. And the feeling is accompanied by an urge to move such as jiggling or rubbing the legs, tossing and turning, stretching and flexing, or pacing and walking.
There are two types of RLS. Primary RLS, the most common form of the disorder, is usually a lifelong condition where the cause is unknown. Symptoms of primary RLS tend to get worse over time, particularly if they began in childhood or early adulthood. Secondary RLS is caused by another disease or condition such as iron deficiency, kidney failure, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. Pregnancy can also drive an onset of RLS in the third trimester, but usually disappears a few weeks after delivery. Secondary RLS can be improved or cured with the improvement of the primary disease or condition.
Most people with RLS experience periodic limb movement disorder, which causes a person’s legs to twitch or jerk uncontrollably every 10 to 60 seconds during sleep. It is this symptom that is among the most problematic, causing repeated sleep disturbance throughout the night.
No test exists to definitively diagnose RLS. The best medical practitioners can do is focus on a patient’s description of symptoms and conduct a neurological and physical exam to rule out other medical conditions that could be causing RLS.
Assuming that no other cause for RLS symptoms can be found, doctors can then deduce a patient has Primary RLS. A diagnosis is helpful, but what can patients with Primary RLS do to relieve symptoms?
There is no known cure for RLS. For patients with severe symptoms, doctors may suggest certain medications to try to reduce the sensations and urges that cause restlessness in the limbs. Doctors may also consider changing a patient’s medication for certain diseases, such as those for seizures, nausea and depression, to see if symptoms can be reduced. Patients with RLS should also stay away from excessive amounts of caffeine, alcohol and tobacco, as those substances are known to exacerbate symptoms of restlessness.
Another option is targeted exercises and stretches aimed at stimulating the legs and circulatory system. A physical therapist can suggest specific leg, ankle and foot movements, including elevated ankle pumps, contractions of the quadriceps and buttocks contractions, to reduce the discomfort and impacts of RLS. Massage and hot and cold therapy may also keep that restless feeling at bay. And targeted stretching may help reduce tension, cut stress in the body and improve the quality of a patient’s sleep.
Restless legs don’t have to keep you up at night. With a little effort, a better night’s sleep can be within your grasp.