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Restless Legs Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment | Sleep Reset

How Restless Legs Syndrome Impacts Your Sleep

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a condition that causes you to feel the need to move your legs, which can affect your sleep at night. As unpleasant as restless legs syndrome can be, losing out on sleep and having low-quality sleep can be detrimental to your health.

Restless legs syndrome can easily wake you from your sleep cycle and rob you of the sleep that you need. Being sleep deprived can make daily activities much more difficult.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to manage and relieve symptoms of RLS. In this article, we’ll talk about restless legs syndrome and what you can do to get it under control so you can sleep better at night.

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What Is Restless Legs Syndrome?

Restless legs syndrome causes uncomfortable sensations in your legs, especially when you’re sitting or lying down. These sensations are often described as prickling, tingling, crawling, or even itching. Moving your legs can cause these sensations to subside briefly.

Restless legs syndrome can appear at any time in your life, and the symptoms tend to worsen as you get older. Typically older adults have the most severe cases.

Is It the Same as Willis-Ekbom Disease?

Yes, restless legs syndrome is also known as Wilis-Ekbom disease. This name was given to the condition because calling it restless legs syndrome defines it in a purely symptomatic sense.

How It Relates to Insomnia

Insomnia is a sleep disorder that makes it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep at night. When someone has restless legs syndrome, they may find the sensations make it difficult to fall asleep, especially because the symptoms are more prominent when you’re lying down. The sensations are typically intense enough to make the individual want to move their legs, massage them, or get out of bed to stretch their legs. 

Naturally, this urge to move makes it difficult to get a restful sleep. This causes those with RLS to have a higher risk for all of the conditions that come with sleep deprivation, including fatigue, irritability, mood disorders, heart disease, and obesity. 

What Are the Causes?

The causes of restless legs syndrome are largely unknown. The condition is suspected to be caused by dopamine imbalances, but this is primarily a theory. Restless legs syndrome does have some correlations with various factors and conditions that could increase your risk of developing RLS. 

These factors include:

  • Genetics: It is common for restless legs syndrome to run in the family. If you have close relatives who have RLS, you may be at risk of developing it later in life.
  • Pregnancy: Those who are pregnant may experience restless legs syndrome during their pregnancy. These symptoms usually occur in the final trimester and commonly subside after delivery.
  • Side effects from substances: Some substances may cause restless legs syndrome when consumed in excess. These substances include drugs, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and certain medications. Symptoms may subside when cutting down on these substances
  • Iron deficiency: If you have an iron deficiency, you may develop restless legs syndrome, or it may make your symptoms worse. Iron deficiency is more common in women.
  • Parkinson’s disease: Those with Parkinson’s disease may have an increased risk for RLS. Some medications used to treat Parkinson’s disease may include RLS as a side effect.

If you do have restless legs syndrome, you may notice your symptoms are triggered by sitting or resting. The above factors can also intensify symptoms and cause them to occur more frequently. Making lifestyle changes may help you reduce the effect these factors have on your restless legs syndrome.

Common Symptoms

Restless legs syndrome symptoms are almost entirely based on sensations. These sensations are typically specific to those who suffer from the condition and aren’t shared by too many other conditions. The International Classification of Sleep Disorders notes the most common words that people with the condition use to describe the sensations. 

These include:

  • Twitchiness
  • Restlessness
  • Discomfort
  • Urge to move
  • Needing to stretch
  • Legs wanting to move on their own

Typically, these sensations will begin when the person is resting. If you’ve been sitting or lying down for a while, the sensations may intensify. Individuals will usually move the legs as the quickest path to relief. Stretching, walking, or massaging the legs may help the sensation to subside. Usually, restless legs syndrome symptoms will be at their worst in the evening and at night. In rare cases, some individuals will feel similar sensations in their arms. Since the symptoms are so prevalent at night, individuals may find it more difficult to fall asleep.

Symptoms may not appear consistently with restless legs syndrome. They may increase in intensity, subside, or even disappear for a time before coming back. Individuals with restless legs syndrome may also have a hard time describing the exact sensation.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis of restless legs syndrome will usually be done by your primary care provider. There isn’t a specific test that can reveal restless legs syndrome as the cause of your symptoms, so your doctor will ask you about your symptoms, your family medical history, and conduct physical examinations. 

Typically, restless legs syndrome can be diagnosed if an individual describes their symptoms in the following ways:

  • You feel the urge to move your legs and feel uncomfortable sensations in your legs, especially when sitting or lying down.
  • Symptoms worsen at night or in the evening.
  • Movement or walking can help ease your symptoms and temporarily relieve them.
  • You don’t have another medical condition that could explain your symptoms.

Sometimes, if describing your symptoms and a physical exam isn’t sufficient, your doctor may recommend blood tests and/or a neurological exam. The blood tests can at least rule out an iron deficiency as the cause of your RLS symptoms.

Treatment

While restless legs syndrome can be difficult to deal with, there are options for treatment. Your first course of action should always be treating any underlying conditions that could be causing your symptoms. This may be simple for some people, for instance, those with an iron deficiency can start taking iron supplements to help balance their iron levels. For others, their condition might not be so easily treated or relieved.

If you’re experiencing restless legs syndrome without an underlying condition, there are prescription medications that you may be able to try. 

Let’s take a look at some of these treatment options:

  • Dopamine medications: Certain medications that increase dopamine levels may be able to treat cases of restless legs syndrome. (It’s worth noting that these medications may have side effects that include nausea and fatigue. They may also increase your risk for impulse control disorders.)
  • Calcium channel drugs: Drugs that affect your calcium channels may be effective for treating restless legs syndrome.
  • Muscle relaxants: You may be prescribed muscle relaxants to keep your legs from feeling the need to move.
  • Sleep medications: Sleep medications may be prescribed if your restless legs syndrome is causing issues with insomnia.

While medications have been able to relieve restless legs syndrome symptoms, you may want to try to manage your symptoms with lifestyle changes first. Medications may not work in the long term or they may cause unwanted side effects. In rare cases, opioids may be prescribed for RLS, and these are known to be addictive. Also, many RLS drugs can’t be taken during pregnancy, so lifestyle changes may be your only option.

Also keep in mind that there are various medications that can worsen your RLS symptoms. These include antidepressants, antipsychotics, and anti-nausea, anti-anxiety, and even cold or allergy medications. Consult your doctor about your medications to see if there may be a better option for you that doesn’t induce symptoms of RLS.

How to Manage Your RLS

Before resorting to medication, it is worthwhile to try to manage your symptoms with lifestyle changes first. If you’re consistent, you may find that this is enough to relieve your symptoms so you don’t have to deal with any potential side effects of medication and supplements.

Typically, these symptom management methods work best if you have mild or moderate RLS symptoms. Severe cases may require the use of medication in tandem with these lifestyle improvements to find relief. These are some methods you can try.

  • Exercise: Restless legs syndrome symptoms can get worse with inactivity. Exercise can help get your legs moving and active. When you exercise regularly, you may find your restless legs syndrome symptoms decrease. Also, exercise is good for your sleep, which can help with RLS-induced insomnia.
  • Massages: It may help relieve your RLS symptoms to give your legs a massage to stimulate them and relieve uncomfortable sensations.
  • Pneumatic press therapy: Using pneumatic compression devices may provide your legs with some relief. These devices fill with air and squeeze the legs to promote blood flow. 
  • Hot baths: Hot baths may relieve uncomfortable sensations and relax the legs.

If RLS is affecting your sleep patterns, you may want to try optimizing your sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene involves creating good sleep habits and sticking to them to fall asleep faster and stay asleep. Let’s look at several ways you can optimize your sleep hygiene.

  • Create a comfortable sleeping environment: Make sure your sleeping environment is as comfortable as possible and that it’s promoting restful sleep. This means keeping the temperature cool, keeping the room dark, and ensuring the room is quiet. It’s also worthwhile to invest in comfortable bedding.
  • Get into a sleep routine: Try a relaxing sleep routine to get you ready for bed. Having the same sleep routine will help your body know it’s time to wind down. If you have RLS, part of your sleep routine can be doing things that relieve your symptoms while also calming your mind and body. For instance, you could take a relaxing walk and then take a warm bath before heading to bed.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol: With many sleep-related issues, you can just limit your caffeine or alcohol intake to earlier times in the day. But if you suffer from RLS, these substances can worsen your symptoms. It might be a good idea to cut them out completely when you’re making initial lifestyle changes to see if this helps with symptoms. If not, you can limit caffeine intake to morning and early afternoon and stop drinking alcohol 4 hours before bed so you don’t interrupt your sleep cycle.
  • Stick to a sleep schedule: Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every night. This will help you get your sleep schedule on track and make sure you get a full night of sleep. You should try to get at least 6 or 7 hours of sleep each night, so do your best to plan for this.

Forming good sleep habits can help you to feel well rested and may help you find some relief from your RLS symptoms.

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If you have restless legs syndrome and you’re having trouble falling asleep at night, let Sleep Reset help! Sleep Reset is a science-backed sleep program that you can do in the comfort of your own home. We use sleep coaching and proven sleep methods to help you form good sleep habits, fall asleep faster, and wake up feeling rested.

Sleep Reset is an all-natural, no-pills solution to helping you get better sleep. Your dedicated sleep coach will personalize your plan for you, adjust your program as needed, and help you throughout every step of the program. You’ll also get tools for sleep tracking and much more.

Sleep Reset is designed to address your personal sleep needs. Your plan will take into account your lifestyle and any sleep disorders you may be dealing with.

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