What Causes Restless Legs Syndrome and What are My Treatment Options?

Restless legs syndrome is one of those rare diseases — not because it doesn’t occur often, but because its name describes perfectly what the problem is. In fact, it would be hard to come up with a better name for that irresistible urge to move your legs due to uncomfortable sensations that just won’t stop.

Also known as Willis-Ekborn disease, restless legs syndrome (RLS) affects up to 10 percent of the U.S. population. It generally occurs when you are inactive for a long period of time, such as sitting while watching a movie or on a flight, or when you lie down to go to bed at night. Symptoms usually get worse as the evening wears on, which can make it difficult to fall asleep or get back to sleep if you wake up.

The sensations that cause the uncontrollable urge to move your legs are difficult to precisely define, but people who have RLS describe the unpleasant sensations as crawling, itching, throbbing, creeping, aching, pulling and even electric. The only relief they find is in moving their legs, but as soon as their legs are still, the feelings begin again.

RLS is classified as a sleep disorder because it occurs when you try to rest or sleep, and as a movement disorder because you must move your legs for relief. Because it affects sleep so much, RLS causes exhaustion and daytime sleepiness, which can affect people’s jobs, moods, and relationships.

What causes restless legs syndrome?

There is no known cause of RLS. Several factors can contribute, however, including genetics — if the condition starts before age 40, it probably runs in your family. Some research and evidence suggest that the condition is related to an imbalance in dopamine, a chemical in your brain that helps control muscle movement.

RLS can also show up or get worse during pregnancy, especially the last trimester, but symptoms usually disappear after delivery. Other risk factors for RLS include iron deficiency, kidney failure, spinal cord conditions, and neuropathy (nerve damage).

There is no specific test for RLS, so doctors must diagnosis the condition based on these five criteria:

How do you treat restless legs syndrome?

Treatment for RLS includes several different options, including both lifestyle changes and medication. Every patient responds differently, so it may take some trial and error with your doctor to settle on a protocol that works well for you.

Lifestyle modifications that may help include avoiding or decreasing use of alcohol or tobacco, keeping a regular sleeping pattern, moderate exercise, leg massages, and warm baths. If a blood test shows you have low iron, iron supplements may decrease your symptoms as well.

Prescription medications that can help relieve RLS include medicine that increases dopamine in the brain, as well as drugs that affect calcium channels. Opioids such as oxycodone can relieve symptoms, but they can also be addicting if used in high doses. Benzodiazepines can help you sleep better, but don’t necessarily relieve RLS, and they can cause daytime drowsiness — they are a last resort if other treatments don’t work.

The team at any of North Atlanta Vascular Clinic and Vein Center’s four locations will be happy to help diagnose and treat your restless legs syndrome. Call or book an appointment online today!

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