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Restless Leg Syndrome 101

by BetterSleep
Jun 15 • 5 min read

We’ve all had those long, restless nights where we just can’t seem to fall asleep. For many, this annoyance only happens once in a while. But for 7 to 11 percent of the population in western countries, uncomfortable sensations in the legs and an urge to move are a constant burden. The cause? A sleep disorder called Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS). This condition may seem like no big deal, but it can seriously impact people’s quality of life and causes insomnia.

So what is RLS? And how do you get diagnosed? Today we’re giving you an overview of the symptoms, causes, and common treatments for the often overlooked condition of Restless Leg Syndrome.

What is Restless Leg Syndrome?

Restless Leg Syndrome (also called Willis-Ekbom Disease) is a chronic neurological disorder defined by PubMed Central as “a condition characterized by discomfort at rest and urge to move focused on the legs.” People with RLS will experience uncomfortable sensations in their legs that can feel like crawling, pulling, or prickling. The only way for people to ease their pain is to move around, and because RLS usually occurs at night, it can lead to insomnia.

RLS is more likely to affect adults and women, but men and kids can also have restless leg syndrome. 1 in 5 pregnant women will even experience RLS symptoms during the last 3 months of their pregnancy. 80 percent of people with RLS also have a related condition called periodic limb movement of sleep (PLMS), which can also contribute to poor sleep.

What causes Restless Leg Syndrome?

Most of the time, the cause of RLS is unknown. Research has narrowed down three factors that play a significant role in RLS; brain concentration of iron, brain dopamine concentration, and genes. RLS has also been linked to other medical conditions like late-stage kidney disease, iron deficiency, and multiple sclerosis. Research has also shown that between 40 to 90 percent of people with RLS have a relative with the condition, which may be caused by genetics.

Symptoms of Restless Leg Syndrome

The most apparent symptom of RLS is an uncomfortable sensation in your legs. But people have also described having this feeling in their arms, chest, and face. According to the NHS, this is what RLS feels like:

  • Tingling, itching, throbbing sensation
  • Creepy-crawly feeling
  • Painful cramping sensation

Like any condition, symptoms and their severity vary from person to person. Some experience RLS symptoms daily, while others will only have them once every couple of weeks. Usually, they get worse at night.

Diagnosing Restless Leg Syndrome

RLS can’t be measured or tested for, making diagnosing the condition difficult. Doctors have to go off a patient’s subjective experience to see if they meet the criteria for RLS. According to the Sleep Foundation, doctors will look for the following criteria when making a diagnosis.

  • Urges and sensations are triggered when resting and can are temporarily relieved by moving.
  • Sensations only occur or get worse at night.
  • Symptoms aren’t a symptom of another condition like leg cramps.

Things like iron deficiency, anemia, kidney failure, and pregnancy can also worsen RLS symptoms. Your doctor may test you for these and other underlying sleeping conditions to help you better manage your pain.

How do you know RSL isn’t some other condition with the same symptoms?

Conditions like Akathisia, Nocturnal leg cramps, peripheral neuropathy, and peripheral vascular disease have symptoms similar to RLS but have some distinct differences. To rule out other possible causes of your pain, doctors will usually give you a differential diagnosis.

A differential diagnosis is a list of possible conditions you could have given the symptoms you’re experiencing. Then, the doctor can test for those other conditions with the right follow-up tests (like physical exams, questions about your health history, lab tests, etc.).

Managing Restless Leg Syndrome

There are various medications and treatments your doctor may prescribe you to help with your RLS. But it depends on your specific medical history and overall health. People have also found that certain lifestyle changes like your maintaining a healthy diet, and limiting your caffeine and alcohol intake can help manage your symptoms.

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