If you've ever been asleep and experienced an almost uncontrollable urge to move your legs because of discomfort or pain that seems to come from nowhere, you might be experiencing restless legs syndrome (RLS), also called Willis-Ekbom disease. RLS is a common disorder that many patients dismiss until it starts seriously affecting their lives. It can start in childhood or later in life.
A Neurological Sensory Disorder
Restless legs syndrome is a neurological sensory disorder. While symptoms usually manifest at night during sleep, this isn't the only time RLS symptoms may strike. Many times, patients feel discomfort when they've been inactive or sitting for an extended period of time, such as in a car or traveling for a long time. Walking or moving the legs tend to make the discomfort go away, but it can return just as quickly as it disappeared.
One of the issues with RLS is it often prevents people from getting a good night's sleep because just as they begin to fall asleep, they have an irresistible urge to move, which disrupts their and sometimes their partner’s sleep. This is typically accompanied by unpleasant sensation in the feet or legs such as aching, pulling, crawling, itching or throbbing.
Many people who have RLS also develop periodic limb movement of sleep (PLMS). This is as a separate disorder that causes legs and arms to jerk every 10 to 60 seconds during sleep, which also interrupts sleep.
Iron May Be the Key
A family history of RLS and a faulty use of iron or lack of iron in the brain are thought to be the main causes of RLS. Various other conditions, such as kidney failure, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, pregnancy and iron deficiency can affect how much iron is in the brain or how it’s used. In some cases, sleep apnea has been known to trigger RLS symptoms as well as certain medications and substances such as alcohol use and tobacco.
Treatment Is Available
There is no known cure for RLS and symptoms often worsen over time. However, it is treatable. If a condition or medication is the trigger, RLS may go away or improve if the trigger is relieved or stopped.
Mild cases of RLS may be helped by lifestyle changes and periodic use of prescribed medication. In severe cases of RLS, daily medication may be necessary. Regular, moderate physical exercise may also help limit or prevent symptoms.
If you feel you have symptoms of restless legs syndrome, make an appointment with your physician as soon as possible. Don't wait until your work performance and daily activities are negatively affected because you’re not getting enough uninterrupted sleep at night, which could lead to depression, mood swings or other health problems.
Dr. Lee Bar-Eli is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Meyerland Plaza Clinic. Her clinical interests include chronic disease management, women’s health and adolescent medicine.