When you want to sleep, but it feels like your legs want to dance, there’s a problem. And the problem has a name: restless leg syndrome (RLS).
Mild RLS symptoms are reported by 5 percent to 15 percent of the total American population, according to Dr. Ghazala Hayat , a SLUCare neurologist and professor of neurology and psychiatry at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. Severe symptoms may occur in about 3 percent to 7 percent of the general population, she adds.
“Patients who have mild RLS may experience a creepy, crawly sensation, usually at night,” Hayat says. “In many cases, if the patient walks or moves her legs for a while, the symptoms subside. But for people who have more severe RLS, the condition interferes with sleep and may be present during the day as well.”
Hayat adds that although it is not always necessary, some patients benefit from an overnight sleep study to determine the extent of periodic limb movement during the night. “This is real,” she says. “There’s no known way to prevent it, but there is some evidence that iron deficiency may be related to RLS, and some medications may aggravate the condition. Also, other medical conditions, such as kidney disease, have been related to RLS, so it’s important to talk with your doctor about your specific situation.”
Recent research indicates that RLS may worsen cardiovascular disease, says Dr. Oscar Schwartz, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital West County. He notes that treatment includes the elimination of things known to aggravate RLS, including antihistamines, caffeine and some types of herbal supplements. “Alcohol may also adversely affect the problem,” he says.
Schwartz recommends supplementing your diet with iron, vitamin B12 or folate, “which is helpful, especially if there is not a balanced diet or if there is a deficiency detected.” He also suggests engaging in activities that help distract from the symptoms.
However, for some patients, lifestyle and dietary changes alone are not enough. Drug treatment options fit into four categories: dopaminergic agents, sedatives, anticonvulsant drugs and pain relievers. “The ones on TV, Requip and Mirapex, have recently been approved for treatment but have been used off-label for years,” Schwartz says. “Carbidopa, levodopa or Sinemet have been used, but drugs in this category of dopaminergic drugs may even augment the disorder by making the symptoms worse.”
Whether lifestyle changes, medications or a combination of treatments are needed, Schwartz says people should be aware that help is available. He directs many patients to the Restless Leg Syndrome Foundation (www.rls.org) and other support groups for people who have RLS.
“Treatment options should be tailored to each individual,” he says. “There are many safe and inexpensive options available.” So indulge in a hot bath before bed or ask your partner to massage your legs, two simple techniques that have been known to help control symptoms. And talk with your primary care physician to ward off those late-night dancing sessions.