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What Is Restless Leg Syndrome?

Imagine lying down at night, trying to get some rest, but feeling a distinct urge to move. It could be just a tickle, or perhaps an itch, but it won’t go away, no matter how hard you work to ignore it. In fact, the only way to get rid of the feeling is to move.

Restless Leg Syndrome Affects Millions of Americans

Approximately 12 million Americans are affected by a mysterious condition called Restless Limb Syndrome. This neurological condition causes the affected person to experience strong sensations of needing to move the limbs, sensations characterized by an itching, creeping, creepy-crawly, tugging, or gnawing feeling. These abnormal sensations can range from being merely uncomfortable to terribly irritating to painful. The only relief available is to move the affected limb. But this is only a temporary solution, for although the irritation stops when the limb is in motion, it begins again as soon as the affected person attempts to stay still.

Many people affected by Restless Limb Syndrome are embarrassed by their problem, and are afraid that a doctor would not believe their description of the symptoms. But Restless Leg Syndrome is a very real neurological problem that is not only irritating, but also can greatly reduce the quality of life.

Criteria For Restless Leg Syndrome Diagnosis

There are four basic Restless Leg Syndrome symptoms required for diagnosis.

  • A strong, almost irresistible urge to move the legs (or other limbs) that is characterized by an odd itching, pulling, creeping, tugging, gnawing, or creep-crawly sensation.
  • The symptoms start or become worse when resting. The longer the period of rest, the more severe the symptoms.
  • The symptoms are reduced or alleviated by movement. This relief begins shortly after beginning to move, but returns shortly after movement is ceased.
  • The symptoms are worse in the evening. Often activities or positions that cause difficulty at night are not a problem during the day.

While there are no specific tests to diagnose Restless Limb Syndrome, it is possible for a doctor to make a diagnosis from a combination of the patient’s description of the condition and a sleep analysis. Additionally the doctor will likely take a series of blood tests to rule out other conditions which may cause similar symptoms.

Underlying Causes of Restless Leg Syndrome

Many times an underlying condition can be found to explain the syndrome. Some conditions that can cause Restless Leg Syndrome include anemia, late term pregnancy, low iron, kidney failure, Parkinson’s, and diabetes. When such causes are found and treated, the Restless Leg Syndrome usually goes away on its own. Unfortunately, not all cases have such a simple solution. In fact, it appears that at least 50% of cases of Restless Leg Syndrome are genetic.

Treatments for Restless Leg Syndrome

Treatment for Restless Legs Syndrome is usually aimed at reducing the symptoms. Often doctors recommend lifestyle changes that are designed to help promote sleep. These include reducing alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco intake, maintaining a regular sleep routine and bedtime, and altering a patient’s sleep patterns. Some suggest taking a supplement to correct a deficiency in iron, folate, or magnesium. Regular exercise has been shown to help reduce Restless Leg Syndrome, but it is important not to overdo it. Relaxation treatments such as leg massage, hot baths, or heating/cooling pads can sometimes help. Unfortunately, while these treatments help, they are not a cure for the condition.

Medication for Restless Leg Syndrome

There are some medications that have been shown to help with Restless Leg Syndrome. Dopaminergics, usually used to treat Parkinson’s disease, are generally considered the treatment of choice. The most commonly prescribed treatment is ropinirole, which is the only medication approved for the treatment of Restless Leg Syndrome by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Benzodiazepines are sometimes prescribed for mild cases, but act by depressing the system so that patients sleep more easily, rather than by relieving the symptoms of Restless Leg Syndrome. For patients with severe pain, doctors may try prescribing opioids such as codeine, propoxyphene, or oxycodone. Another option doctors may consider are anticonvulsants such as carbamazepine and gabapentin, which reduce the physical sensations of creeping or itching that many patients experience.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for Restless Leg Syndrome. While you can learn to cope with the problem, and plan your life around it, generally the condition worsens over time. Support groups are available to help those affected with this lifelong syndrome.

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