What is Restless Legs Syndrome?
Do you have difficulty sitting still on an airplane because your legs are uncomfortable? Do your restless legs prevent you from falling asleep at night? If you answered "yes" to either of these questions, then you might have Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS).
RLS is an uncomfortable sensation in the legs that appears at rest or at bedtime. The sensation is notoriously difficult to describe, but some refer to it as a "creepy-crawly" feeling. RLS has many names and has been variously referred to as "Jimmy legs," the "heebie jeebies," and "Elvis legs." It creates an irresistible urge to move the legs. When the legs are moved, this sensation is temporarily relieved. RLS is a problem because it prevents people from falling asleep and the uncomfortable sensation can cause a great deal of distress.
Who Gets Restless Legs Syndrome?
Anyone can have it at any age. Once it starts, it usually becomes progressively worse with age. It is estimated to occur in up to 1 in 10 adults in the United States. In some people it is inherited and in some it occurs spontaneously. Nobody knows why it occurs but it is believed to be due to a problem with the neurotransmitter dopamine in the nervous system. Since iron is involved in the production of dopamine, some people with low iron have RLS. Up to 80% of people with RLS also have a separate but related disorder call Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (leg kicking that usually occurs after the person has fallen asleep).
I Think I Might Have RLS, How Do I Find Out If I Have It?
Make an appointment with your primary care physician, or if your insurance allows it, go straight to a sleep specialist. If your physician thinks you might have RLS, he or she should check the ferritin levels in your blood (ferritin is a sensitive indicator of blood iron levels). Then you can be treated with various medications and have an iron deficiency corrected if needed.
How Is RLS Treated?
In a small number of patients, correcting iron levels can help with RLS. Behavioral methods like hot baths and relaxation methods may also be effective. Many patients require a medication. The FDA recently approved a medication called Requip® which has been clinically proven to help relieve the symptoms of RLS. Many other classes of medications can also be helpful including benzodiazepines, other Parkinsons Disease medications, seizure medications, and narcotics. Ask your doctor about what option is right for you.