What is restless legs syndrome?
Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder due to which a person suffers severe urges tomove their legs from time to time. They experience a very uncomfortable sensation in their legs when they remain still, and moving their legs or walking about usually alleviates the distress. People with RLS have trouble sleeping because of this sensation and may experience these urges several times during the night. This reduces the quality of their sleep making them feel drowsy during the day. RLS also makes it difficult for people to travel long distances by car or travel by air. RLS can be very stressful but with some medication and lifestyle changes, it is almost always treatable.
What are the symptoms of RLS?
The main symptoms of RLS are:
- Uncomfortable sensation in the legs: You experience an itchy, burning or crawling sort of sensation in your legs. This compels you to move your legs, which makes the sensation go away. In a few cases, you may experience this sensation in your arms or other parts of the body but it is most commonly felt in the legs.
- Sensation begins when at rest: You have this sensation only when you are sitting still or lying down.
- Daytime drowsiness: The repeated urges to move your legs at night reduce the quality of your sleep, making you feel tired and drowsy during the day. You may also become irritable due to lack of sleep.
Many people assume that the symptoms of RLS are not serious and also do not realize how it reduces the quality of their life. If you have noticed a loved one twitching or shifting about from time to time, or displaying other symptoms of RLS, you should talk to them about the disorder and suggest that they visit a mental health professional.
What causes RLS?
The cause for RLS differs from person to person and in some cases it is also unknown. Research suggests that it is due to an imbalance of dopamine which controls muscle movement. Some of the other known causes are:
- Deficiency of iron: This can cause problems in brain cell communication which may result in RLS.
- Family history: Sometimes RLS may run in the family. The chances of this are greater if the previous generation developed the condition at an early age.
- Other medical conditions: Conditions such as kidney failure, diabetes, nerve damage, arthritis and anemia can also lead to the development of RLS. However, when one starts receiving treatment for these conditions, the symptoms of RLS subside.
- Pregnancy: Women may experience RLS during pregnancy. However, these symptoms subside within a month of delivery.
Getting treatment for RLS
Treatment for RLS can vary; from making simple lifestyle changes, treating an underlying medical condition that may have caused RLS, to medications that specifically treat the symptoms of RLS.
Initially you may be asked to make simple changes such as following an exercise routine, losing weight if you are overweight, or quitting smoking and caffeine. If there is an underlying condition such as an iron deficiency, your doctor may prescribe iron supplements. These should only be taken if medically prescribed. If these treatments do not relieve the stress, then you may be prescribed any of the following types of drugs:
- Parkinson's disease medication: These medicines increase the level of dopamine in the brain and help reduce the symptoms of RLS. The fact that you have RLS does not necessarily mean that you may suffer from Parkinson's disease.
- Narcotic pain medications: This type of medicine, known as opioids, can help with symptoms of RLS but there is a risk of addiction.
- Sleeping pills and muscle relaxants: These medicines help you sleep more easily but do not completely tackle the symptoms of RLS. You might still feel drowsy during the day.
It is essential that you consult a doctor and follow the treatment plan and medication prescribed by your doctor. Some medications work differently for different people, making symptoms better for some and worse for others. It is important that you keep your doctor updated on how the medicines are affecting you.
Caring for someone with RLS
If someone you know is suffering from RLS, you should know that they are going through considerable distress. Most people are not aware that this is a medical condition, which can be treated. It is important that you learn more about the disorder. If your partner is suffering from RLS, it is possible that you too are having trouble sleeping well. It is essential that you remain patient and remember that it is not in their control. Talk to the person about the condition and encourage them to see a mental health professional. Offer to accompany them to the doctor as a show of support. Try and ensure that the person follows the treatment plan and doesn't take any medication that hasn't been prescribed.
Coping with RLS
Living with RLS can be extremely stressful but there are some things you can do to reduce the distress. Try and start a regular exercise regime and maintain a good sleep routine. Hot baths, massages and hot or cool packs applied to your legs will help relax the muscles of your legs. Avoiding tobacco and caffeine can also help you sleep better. Most importantly, you must stick to your treatment plan and keep your doctor updated on any changes in your symptoms.