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Restless Legs Syndrome
Incidence and Causes What you can do to relieve symptoms
In the News  

June 23, 2006
In Restless Legs Syndrome, a single question can be diagnostic

In a recent study of 521 people, a single question was enough to determine which patients had Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) and which ones did not. The following question was used: "When you try to relax in the evening or sleep at night, do you ever have unpleasant, restless feelings in your legs that can be relieved by walking or movement?" In this study, that single question accurately diagnosed all restless leg syndrome patients with a sensitivity of 100%, and only picked up a few false positives with a specificity of 96.7%. In other words, a few people answered yes even though they didn't actually have RLS. Similar results have also been found in several previous studies. MedPage Today

What is Restless Legs Syndrome?

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a condition in which an unpleasant, restless sensation in the legs arises after prolonged inactivity such as sitting or lying down. The longer the period of rest, the greater the chance the symptoms will occur and the more severe they are likely to be.
These symptoms are typically relieved by walking or movement of the legs such as jiggling, stretching or massaging legs to get relief. As soon as the movement stops however, the symptoms recur.

The exact uncomfortable sensation varies from person to person and can be described as burning, creeping, crawling, jittery, aching, or tugging, sensation inside the legs, feet, or arms. Ranging in severity from uncomfortable to painful, the symptoms of RLS typically arise in the evening, and dissipate in the early morning hours.

This syndrome can be frustrating and lead to significant disruption in people's daily life. People affected by RLS of have difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep. They often don’t get enough sleep and may feel tired and sleepy during the day. RLS can make traveling in a car or airplane extremely uncomfortable, and can be annoying while sitting at a movie theatre or trying to relax at home in the evening.

Incidence and Causes

Restless legs syndrome is a neurologic disorder which affects up to 10% of the U.S. population.(3) Many people may only have a mild form of the disorder, but RLS severely affects the lives of millions of individuals.  It occurs in both sexes, can begin at any age and may worsen with age.

The cause of restless legs syndrome is unknown but it does tend to run in families and in some cases is associated with certain vitamin deficiencies, medication side effects or chronic diseases. Symptoms may be worse during stress or emotional upset.

The medications that can make RLS symptoms worse include antidepressants (most of them), antinausea medicines, antipsychotic medicines, and antihistamines.(2)

Many people with RLS also have a condition called periodic limb movement disorder in which a person’s legs twitch or jerk uncontrollably every 10 to 60 seconds. This problem usually occurs during sleep.

There is no cure for RLS but research is underway to better understand its causes and to develop better treatments.

What you can do to relieve symptoms

There are a number of simple measures that will minimize the symptoms of RLS. Medications also help many people with restless legs syndrome. Mild to moderate symptoms can often be relieved or eliminated by:

  • Decreased use of caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco
  • Supplements to correct deficiencies in iron, folate, and magnesium might be suggested by health care professionals. If iron deficiency appears to be contributing to RLS iron supplements should only be used under the supervision of a physician.
  • Taking a hot bath, massaging the legs, or using a heating pad or ice pack
Medications prescribed by a health care professional
Medications are used in more severe cases to relieve the symptoms of RLS. Categories of drugs that have been helpful include dopaminergics (medications used to treat Parkinson's Disease), benzodiazepines (central nervous system depressants), opioids, and anticonvulsants. In 2005 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, approved ropinirole (Requip) for the treatment of moderate to severe symptoms of RLS. No single medicine is helpful in all persons with RLS and it may take several changes in medications and dosages to find the best symptomatic relief.
References for Restless Legs Syndrome
(1)Restless Legs Syndrome Information Page from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
(2) What is Restless Legs Syndrome? from the National Heart, Lungs and Blood Institute
(3) Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation the RLS Foundation maintains a directory of healthcare providers who specialize in treatment
(4) International Restless Legs Syndrome Study Group an organization of professionals committed to advancing basic and clinical research
--Written by N Thompson, ARNP in collaboration with M Thompson, MD, Internal Medicine, June 2006

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