Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) – Overview

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Sleep disorders usually involve conditions that directly affect sleep, but some unusual conditions are also classified within this category.

Restless legs syndrome is one particular example where the sleep process is not directly affected but rather disrupted through the symptoms caused by the condition. Restless legs syndrome is a relatively common condition that may affect as much as 15% of the worldwide adult population.

RLS is a condition where a patient experiences unpleasant urges to make movements, especially when they are sleeping. This, in turn, can cause a patient to experience a significant disruption in their sleep – when these movements become persistent, the patient may not be able to fall asleep, or they may wake up frequently during sleep. This is why RLS is often considered as a sleep disorder – due to the fact that it primarily affects the patient during sleep. In turn, the condition can cause the patient to suffer from sleep deprivation – a condition that leads to daytime sleepiness, lower productivity and even higher risk of chronic disease.

RLS Causes

sleeping woman with uncovered legs

Restless Legs Syndrome can be caused by a variety of factors. Identifying the potential causes and risk factors present in an affected patient’s life is important as this may yield an overview of why they may be experiencing these symptoms, ultimately leading to a more effective treatment plan. In the majority of cases, no cause for the symptoms of RLS can be identified by a physician. In this case, the patient will be diagnosed with primary restless legs syndrome.

There are many cases where a cause can be identified, however. Some potential risk factors and causes of this syndrome that may be identified in a patient include:

  • Dysfunctions are affecting the basal ganglia, the particular part of the human brain that is in control of the body's movements.
  • A patient diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease may also be more likely to experience symptoms associated with restless legs syndrome.
  • An iron deficiency has been linked to the development of symptoms associated with this condition.
  • Patients who use nicotine products, or consume excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol, are also more likely to experience these symptoms.
  • Some medications are known to also contribute to these symptoms. Examples of these medications include certain antipsychotic drugs, antihistamines, cold and flu medications, antinausea drugs, and certain antidepressants.
  • Neuropathy, a condition where nerve damage has occurred in the patient’s body, can also contribute to this condition. Diabetes is a particular condition that can lead to neuropathy.
  • It should also be noted that pregnancy can cause a woman to experience symptoms of restless legs syndrome.

Symptoms of RLS

The symptoms associated with restless legs syndrome can become present at any time, but they are usually at their worst when the patient is in a resting position. The reason why restless legs syndrome is often classified as a sleep disorder is that most patients find that their symptoms are most severe and disturbing during sleep.

The main symptom that is associated with restless legs syndrome is an urge to move either one or both legs. In addition to these urges, the patient may also experience additional symptoms in the affected leg, such as:

  • An itchy feeling
  • A burning feeling
  • A Creeping or crawling sensation
  • A throbbing sensation

Diagnosis

man in bed with uncovered legs

The healthcare industry does not have any specific diagnostic tools or tests that can be used to diagnose a patient with restless legs syndrome. The condition is usually diagnosed based on the particular symptoms that the patient is experiencing. When a patient visits a physician, they will be asked about the symptoms they are experiencing, whether the symptoms improve when they do make a movement in order to satisfy the urge, as well as whether or not the symptoms are worse during sleep.

RLS Treatment

Treatment for restless legs syndrome starts with a thorough analysis of the patient's current health status, and by looking at the medications, they are currently taking. Underlying health conditions need to be identified and treated effectively. This may include a deficiency in iron in the patient's blood. If the patient uses specific types of medication that have been linked to a higher risk of restless legs syndrome, then a change in medication may be effective in relieving the symptoms. Some lifestyle habits, such as reducing caffeine and alcohol intake, can also be helpful. 

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