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Restless Legs Syndrome

It’s difficult to fall asleep sometimes, but it’s especially difficult with a sleep disorder like restless legs syndrome. Our sleep specialists are here to offer a variety of treatment and testing options.\

What is Restless Legs Syndrome?

Restless legs syndrome is the third most common sleep disorder. Also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, restless legs syndrome is a long-term condition that causes an uncomfortable sensation, and in turn, an uncontrollable urge to move the legs. This sensation typically happens in the evening, while sitting or lying down. Moving the legs can temporarily ease the discomfort caused by restless legs syndrome.

Restless legs syndrome is a type of movement disorder, a neurological condition that can affect a person’s movement abilities. The urge to move your legs can disrupt sleep, prevent your ability to get a full night’s rest and may lead to other sleep disorders, such as insomnia.

Factors and Symptoms of Restless Legs Syndrome

Although restless legs syndrome is more common for people age 65 and older, it can develop at any age, even childhood. In fact, it’s estimated that between 5-15 percent of the adult population has or has experienced an episode of restless legs syndrome.

While there is no known cause for restless legs syndrome, research suggests it may be related to an imbalance of dopamine.

Some factors that can cause restless legs syndrome include:

  • Heredity
  • Pregnancy (last trimester) or hormonal changes
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Kidney failure
  • Spinal cord conditions
  • Iron deficiency

The main symptom of restless legs syndrome is the urge to move the legs. In addition to this urge, some people describe the feeling as an abnormal and unpleasant sensation in the legs or feet, usually on both sides of the body. In some cases, the sensations can also affect the arms.

These sensations may be felt within the limb rather than on the skin and are sometimes difficult to describe. Some of the sensations may be described as:

  • Creeping
  • Pulling
  • Throbbing
  • Crawling
  • Itching
  • Aching
  • Electric

Symptoms of restless legs syndrome can fluctuate in severity or go away for a period of time before returning.

Diagnosis and Testing for Restless Leg Syndrome

To diagnose restless legs syndrome, your doctor will examine your medical history and ask for a description of your symptoms.

A restless legs syndrome diagnosis is based on the following criteria:

  • A strong and irresistible urge to move the legs, usually accompanied by uncomfortable sensations
  • Temporary or partial relief of symptoms after activity, like stretching or walking
  • Symptoms start or get worse when resting
  • Symptoms are worse at night
  • Symptoms cannot be explained by another medical or behavioral condition

If you meet any of these criteria, your doctor may perform a physical or neurological exam to confirm a diagnosis. In some cases, a blood test may be ordered to rule out any other possible causes or conditions, like an iron deficiency.

If another sleep disorder is suspected, like sleep apnea, your doctor may also order a sleep test. Our sleep testing is offered at an outpatient sleep center or from the comfort of your home. We’ll use special equipment to track and monitor your sleep from the place you feel most comfortable. Talk to your doctor to see if an at-home sleep test is right for you.

Treatment for Restless Legs Syndrome

In some cases, restless legs syndrome can be relieved by treating an underlying condition. Iron deficiencies can oftentimes be to blame for the sensations, in which case your doctor may prescribe iron supplements.

Medications that have been developed to treat other diseases can also help reduce the restless sensation in the legs. These medications can include:

  • Medications that increase dopamine in the brain
  • Drugs that affect calcium channels
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Sleep medications
  • Opioids

It can take several trials to figure out the best medication, or combination of medications, for you. In some cases, medications that have previously worked to treat restless legs symptoms can become ineffective. In this instance, your doctor will work closely with you to develop a substitute treatment plan or alternative medications to help relieve your symptoms.

In addition to medication, making small lifestyle changes can help, such as:

  • Establishing a good sleep routine and environment
  • Taking a bath or getting a massage
  • Applying warm or cool packs
  • Avoiding caffeine
  • Exercising
  • Using a foot wrap

We want all our patients to experience the fullest quality of life – that includes getting restful sleep. The compassionate staff at Banner Health will work with you to put an end to any sleep disorders you may be experiencing.