Restless Leg Syndrome and Sleep

Restless Leg Syndrome and Sleep
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Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) can make you feel like a Martian has invaded your body.  The symptoms usually occur at night, and can limit your ability to sleep.  It is a neurological condition that involves a “creeping sensation” on the lower limbs relieved by movement.  Considered a sleep disorder, it can interfere with falling asleep—and remaining asleep.  The result can be chronic fatigue during day-time activities.  Diagnosis of this annoying condition involves ruling out other causes (such as sleep position, arthritis, or a vitamin deficiency).

Diagnostic Tools of Restless Leg Syndrome

 The Willis-Ekbom Disease Foundation lists five criteria utilized in determining if RLS is the cause of symptoms, including worse symptoms on lying down, and in the evening.  (The Willis-Ekbom Disease Foundation was formerly known as the RLS Foundation.)  Since iron deficiency has been associated with Restless Leg Syndrome, a blood sample is drawn for serum ferritin level testing. Unlike the hematocrit level (which is a measure of the volume of blood composed of red blood cells), the serum ferritin measures the amount of ferritin in the blood—which is the major iron storage protein in the body.

Dopamine, Parkinson’s Disease, and RLS

Dopamine deficiency is a hallmark of Parkinson’s Disease, and individuals diagnosed with Parkinson’s often have RLS (per the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke).  The pharmaceutical treatment for both Parkinson’s Disease and RLS is to increase dopamine production. The Centers for Disease Control reports that a dopamine abnormality is also present in persons with RLS—but there is no evidence that persons with RLS will develop Parkinson’s.

Diabetes and Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)

Peripheral neuropathy is a complication of diabetes, and damages the nerves in the lower extremities.  As such, it can mimic RLS (so doctors check for diabetes in patients complaining of this condition).  However, diabetic persons can have both peripheral neuropathy and RLS—and diabetes increases the risk for RLS.  Controlling glucose is important in diabetes so that the complications do not occur or worsen.

Non-Medication Treatments

Some lifestyle changes have proven effective as treatments for RLS symptoms.  Eliminating caffeine is linked to a reduction in RLS symptoms.  Supplements of iron, folate, and magnesium are recommended for individuals who have a known deficiency in these substances.  Increasing exercise, massaging the legs, and hot baths are other non-medical treatments.  There is also a pneumatic compression device (wrapped around the legs) that provides relief in some patients.

The Impact of RLS on Sleep

It is very difficult for people experiencing a high degree of RLS to sleep well.  Therefore, some RLS-sufferers resort to sleeping pills (including opioids).  This can lead to drug dependence.  Herbs such as valerian root and chamomile are alternative treatments to induce sleep.

Population Affected by RLS

An estimated 10 percent of the U.S. population has Restless Leg Syndrome (according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke).  It is more common in middle-aged persons, but has also been diagnosed in children.  This disorder affects approximately 10 percent of the elderly, per the American Parkinson Disease Association.  It is a lifelong disorder for most people who experience it, and further research is needed to find a cure.


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