Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome, known as RLS, is a sleep disorder that afflicts more than 15 percent of adults. It affects more women than men, with the incidence of RLS increasing with age. Certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, arthritis, and varicose veins, increase the risk of developing RLS.

This sleep disorder is characterized by an uncontrollable urge to move the lower legs, knees and occasionally the arms. Sometimes painful sensations accompany the urge to move. People that suffer from this sleep disorder describe the feelings and sensations in different ways. Many describe a tingling, itching or pulling sensation. Still others say it feels prickly or burns. Some feel as if they have worms crawling under their skin. The sensations which are typical of this sleep disorder can occur anytime during the day or night. Restless legs syndrome occurring at night has a devastating effect on sleep. The symptoms can cause the sufferer to get in and out of bed repeatedly, which can delay or disrupt sleep. Since sleep is repeatedly interrupted, extreme daytime sleepiness is common.

The combination of always feeling tired along with the symptoms themselves can cause a person with RLS to alter their lifestyle. Long trips, movies, concerts and eating in restaurants are some of the activities they usually avoid. Attending a long meeting at work can become very painful and uncomfortable. People that have this sleep disorder often suffer from depression.

Researchers believe that RLS may be caused by malfunctions of the pathways in the brain that controls movement reflexes and sensations. Often this sleep disorder has a genetic base.

Unfortunately, RLS cannot be diagnosed by one single test. Many times the standard neurological examination shows no signs of an abnormality. In many cases, a doctor will make his diagnosis of RLS based on the patient's description of their symptoms. They also take into account family history, and the results of a routine medical examination and blood tests.

Many times the treatment for RLS is aimed at controlling the debilitating sensations that accompany this sleep disorder. Often iron supplements are prescribed because severe anemia has been linked to this disorder. Relaxation techniques, diet changes, and the elimination of caffeine and alcohol help some sufferers of restless legs syndrome.

In most cases, this sleep disorder is treated with drugs. These drugs could include dopamine agents, benzodiazepines, opioids or anticonvulsants. Medications do not cure restless legs syndrome but they can successfully manage the symptoms. People that suffer from this sleep disorder usually have to remain on their medications for the rest of their lives.

Another sleep disorder similar to restless legs syndrome is periodic limb movement disorder, also known as PLMD. There are two main differences between RLS and PLMD. Restless legs syndrome occurs whether the sufferer is awake or asleep; periodic limb movement disorder only occurs when the sufferer is asleep. Restless legs syndrome movements are voluntary responses to very unpleasant sensations; the movements of periodic limb movement disorder are involuntary and are not consciously controlled. Both of these sleep disorders can be effectively controlled with medical treatment.

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