The last thing Americans need is a reason to get less sleep, but that’s exactly what restless legs syndrome (RLS) provides. And unlike other culprits of sleeplessness, such as too much caffeine or too little exercise, there’s no easy fix when it’s your own body that’s keeping you up.
WHAT IT IS: Restless legs syndrome is a frustrating, mysterious, and often misunderstood condition, and for its millions of sufferers (up to 10 percent of the U.S. population, according to the National Institutes of Health), it’s at the heart of many a sleepless night. RLS is marked by unpleasant sensations in the legs that usually hit hardest during periods of rest, such as when the sufferer lies down to sleep. The uncomfortable sensations are often accompanied by an intense urge to move the legs; doing so brings relief from the discomfort. Depending on the patient, the sensations are frequently described as pulling, tingling, burning, crawling or aching.
WHAT IT DOES: Regardless of what they’re called, RLS symptoms are hard to live with. The urge to walk or move the legs renders sleep all but impossible until the feeling passes, which often takes an hour or longer. Frequent sufferers experience symptoms three or four times a week and are likely to feel the effects of bedtime apprehension and lost sleep.
TREATMENT AND PREVENTION: RLS doesn’t have any one traceable source, though it is a neurological condition that often runs in families. Anemia and low iron levels may make RLS worse, and many people with RLS also suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder. Some people experience RLS symptoms more often than others and to a greater or lesser degree. Stress can exacerbate the symptoms, so when a person begins to stress over RLS itself, their symptoms may worsen, compounding the problem. According to the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation, the two main divisions of treatment are drug therapies and non-drug therapies such as lifestyle changes.
- Non-drug treatments: Evaluate your diet, alcohol intake, and level of physical activity and make changes to improve your physical and mental health. Adopt good sleep habits, such as avoiding caffeine close to bedtime and maintaining your sleep/wake times even on weekends. Explore activities that may relieve your RLS symptoms, such as walking, stretching, massage or acupressure. Some medications can make RLS symptoms worse. Discuss with your doctor any drugs you’re taking, including supplements and prescription and over-the-counter medications, to determine whether or not they are linked to your RLS.
- Drug treatments: Some medications used to treat other medical conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, have been approved for treatment of RLS. Other medications that may help alleviate symptoms, according to the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation, include dopaminergic agents, sleeping aids, anticonvulsants and pain relievers. Talk to your health-care provider about the best options for you.