Restless Legs Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Restless Legs Syndrome

The National Institute of Health estimates that up to 10% of Americans suffer from restless legs syndrome (RLS). If you’re among them, you know how difficult it is to get a good night’s sleep. However, you might not know what’s behind your condition or how to treat it.  You may have a sleeping disorder.

Importantly, this knowledge is essential in treating RLS and getting the rest you need. Read on to learn more about restless legs syndrome, including symptoms, causes, and treatments.

What Is Restless Legs Syndrome?

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder that causes discomfort in the legs and an irresistible impulse to move them.

Moving the legs generally relieves the discomfort. Yet this relief is temporary. When an individual tries to rest again, the discomfort returns.

Individuals suffering from this disorder find that the condition is worse at night. However, long periods of inactivity at any time of the day can produce symptoms.

Because it interferes with sleep, RLS is considered a sleep disorder. Since movement improves symptoms, it is also considered a movement disorder. Ultimately, though, it is a neurological disorder as the symptoms originate in the brain.

What Causes Restless Legs Syndrome?

The symptoms of RLS originate in the brain, but the cause of this neurological dysfunction is often unknown.

Current research suggests that disruptions in the supply of dopamine to the basal ganglia may play a role. The basal ganglia are structures of the brain responsible for movement. Dopamine is a chemical that promotes smooth physical movements. 

Disruptions in the supply of dopamine to the basal ganglia can produce involuntary movements. These include those associated with Parkinson’s disease. In fact, patients with Parkinson’s disease have an increased risk of developing RLS.

Besides dopamine, the brain needs an adequate supply of iron to function properly. Studies also suggest that a deficit of iron may contribute to RLS.

Genetics can play a role in RLS, as well. This is especially true when RLS symptoms appear in younger individuals. Cases of RLS that occur before age 40 are considered early-onset. Most cases of RLS—and the most severe cases of RLS—occur in older individuals. 

Women are also more likely than men to suffer from RLS.

Finally, RLS often occurs in conjunction with other illnesses and factors. These include:

  • End-stage kidney disease and dialysis treatments
  • Nerve damage, or peripheral neuropathy
  • Diabetes
  • Pregnancy
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Sleep apnea
  • Caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine use
  • Use of antinausea drugs, antidepressants, especially SSRIs, antipsychotics, and some older antihistamines

Understanding what triggers restless legs syndrome is important to relieve symptoms. Often, addressing these factors provides patients significant relief.

Warning Signs of Restless Legs Syndrome

The defining feature of restless legs syndrome is discomfort in the legs and an irresistible impulse to move them while resting.

Patients sometimes struggle to describe the sensation, and it can vary from mild irritation to severe pain. Most patients describe the feeling in their legs as a throbbing, itching, pulling, creeping, or crawling.

These sensations most often occur in the legs. Most patients experience symptoms in both legs. However, discomfort can occur on only one side of the body or alternate sides.

Less commonly, the discomfort associated with RLS can affect the arms, head, and chest.

In addition to an urge to move the legs, patients with RLS may develop a secondary condition that produces involuntary twitching and jerking.

Periodic limb movement of sleep (PLMS) is a condition that frequently occurs with RLS. Patients with PLMS exhibit involuntary twitching several times a minute during sleep. Up to 80% of RLS patients also experience PLMS.

Restless legs syndrome symptoms are most often worse at night. Patients with RLS report difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. Long periods of inactivity may also trigger symptoms.

The frequency of the sensations associated with RLS varies from patient to patient. Mild cases may produce symptoms once or twice a week. However, even these mild cases can significantly limit the amount and quality of sleep. More severe cases produce symptoms more than twice a week.

Because RLS disrupts sleep, patients also experience fatigue and daytime sleepiness. They also struggle with memory and concentration. Additionally, RLS patients are at increased risk for anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders.

Patients with RLS can experience difficulty completing tasks for work or daily living tasks. Mood disorders, fatigue, and irritability can also make maintaining relationships a challenge.

How to Treat Restless Legs Syndrome

RLS produces its most obvious effects during periods of rest. However, good rest affects a person’s overall health. Therefore, treating restless legs syndrome is essential to promote well-being.

Treatment for restless legs syndrome begins with a proper diagnosis. Although there are no tests for RLS, a doctor can evaluate your symptoms.

He or she can also conduct tests to rule out other conditions or identify underlying causes. These tests include blood tests and sleep studies.

If tests reveal an underlying cause, like sleep apnea, treating RLS requires treating the underlying cause.

Treatment for most cases of RLS includes some combination of medication and lifestyle changes.

Iron Supplements

Iron Supplements for Restless Legs Syndrome

Patients with an iron deficiency can benefit significantly from taking an iron supplement. The first line of treatment for RLS patients with low levels of iron is usually an over-the-counter iron supplement. 

If over-the-counter supplements do not sufficiently increase iron levels, your doctor might try an IV supplement.

Iron supplements can cause constipation, so patients might consider taking a stool softener to alleviate this side effect. 

An upset stomach is another common side effect of iron supplements. Trying a different supplement can usually relieve this discomfort.

Anti-Seizure Drugs and Dopaminergic Agents

Sleepiness from Restless Legs Syndrome

The most common prescription drugs prescribed for RLS are anti-seizure drugs. These show promise in relieving the creeping and crawling sensations associated with RLS. They can also relieve nerve pain.

Some anti-seizure drugs have a dopaminergic effect. Dopaminergic agents increase the supply of dopamine to the brain. Because disruptions in the supply of dopamine can trigger RLS, these drugs can be an effective treatment.

Dopaminergic agents are most often used to treat Parkinson’s disease. However, the FDA has approved some for patients with RLS.

Side effects of anti-seizure drugs include sleepiness and dizziness.

Side effects of dopaminergic agents include dizziness, nausea, and impulsive behaviors.

It should also be noted that, in the long term, dopaminergic agents may be associated with worsening of RLS symptoms. If this occurs, however, stopping treatment with dopaminergic agents reverses the effect.

Opioids and Benzodiazepines 

Benzodiazepines to help Restless Legs Syndrome

Forming a last pharmaceutical line of defense for patients with severe cases of RLS are opioids and benzodiazepines.

At very low doses, opioids show promise in controlling RLS symptoms – however opioids have been found to be addictive and caused havoc in people’s lives.

Benzodiazepines have a sedative effect and can promote restful sleep in patients with RLS.

However, the side effects of opioids and benzodiazepines place these drugs at the bottom of any list of treatment options.

Side effects of opioid use include dizziness, constipation, and nausea. Meanwhile, benzodiazepines decrease energy, impair concentration, and contribute to daytime sleepiness.

Both opioids and benzodiazepines can also make any underlying condition of sleep apnea worse. Therefore, patients with sleep apnea should not consider these drugs as a treatment for RLS.

Finally, opioids are habit-forming, so addiction is a risk of this type of treatment. 

Lifestyle Changes

Woman taking hot bath due to Restless Legs Syndrome

Many patients with RLS find significant relief after modifying their lifestyles to eliminate or reduce triggers.

The following restless legs syndrome remedies can improve symptoms:

  • Avoiding or limiting alcohol and tobacco products
  • Engaging in regular physical activity, especially aerobic exercise and leg stretches
  • Massaging the legs
  • Taking a warm bath
  • Using heat or ice
  • Promoting good sleep habits

Choosing a Mattress for Restless Legs Syndrome

It seems a cruel twist of fate that RLS causes difficulty sleeping, while, at the same time, poor quality sleep aggravates RLS.

However, there is hope for individuals with RLS to get a good night’s sleep. It often begins with choosing the right mattress.

Getting a good night’s sleep can be a challenge for anyone sleeping on an old, worn-out mattress. The Better Sleep Council recommends replacing a mattress every seven years.

If your mattress is old, it likely does not provide the support your body needs during rest. As a result, your sleep may be disrupted not only by symptoms of RLS but also by aches, pains, and stiffness. Purchasing a new, more supportive mattress can help.

Explore your options and find the perfect mattress for your body type.  Consider our Classic Orthopedic mattress, it’s tufted, flippable, and handcrafted.

For patients with RLS, choosing a hybrid mattress that reduces pressure on the nerves in your legs may be best. Memory foam, natural latex, and hybrid mattresses are among the options ideally suited to relieve pressure points. 

Sleeping with a pillow between your knees can also reduce compression of the nerves in your legs. Check out the Beloit collection, which includes all pillows now on sale.

Memory foam and hybrid mattresses also reduce motion transfer. If you suffer from RLS and sleep with a partner, this mattress feature can help both of you get a good night’s sleep.

Getting a Restful Night’s Sleep with Restless Legs Syndrome

Getting a restful night’s sleep with restless legs syndrome is possible. Doing so requires understanding your condition. It also requires identifying and addressing any underlying factors. 

For many patients, a combination of medications and lifestyle changes provides significant relief. One of the most important lifestyle changes you can make is choosing to sleep on a supportive mattress.

As you explore your options, count on the experts at Beloit Mattress. Start shopping securely online and get a mattress deal today!

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