By Gregg Caporaso, MD, PHD, attending neurologist at Northern Westchester Hospital
Can you imagine having the uncontrollable urge to move your legs every time you try to sleep at night? Many patients face this condition nightly. If the need to get up and move is keeping you from getting your beauty sleep, you may have restless legs syndrome (RLS). This baffling ailment is primarily thought of as a sleep disorder since it can keep sufferers—and their partners — from getting the “deep sleep” they need for good health. Patients usually can’t be specific about the sensation. They simply complain of a very uncomfortable sensation in their legs that gives them the urge to move their legs.
The condition often goes unrecognized or misdiagnosed, yet over 10 percent of Americans suffer from restless legs syndrome. Some people have infrequent episodes, or it just occurs a few times in their lives. If that’s the case, a patient may never seek a diagnosis or treatment. The ones that end up in my office tend to suffer with discomfort nightly.
There are four signs to watch for: An urge to move the legs that’s difficult to explain; the urge worsens when you’re at rest; the urge lessens if you move or stretch and; it’s always worse at night.
Genetics may partly explain RLS: About 50 percent of the patients have a family member with the syndrome and women seem slightly more prone to RLS than men. In some patients, RLS has been associated with low levels of iron in the blood, which is a potentially reversible cause of the condition.
If a patient has low iron levels, he or she may find relief through regular iron supplements. (Pregnant women often experience RLS during pregnancy due to low iron, for example.) Certain types of medications such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, and cold and allergy medicines that contain antihistamines may worsen symptoms; sometimes changing medications can help reduce RLS. Other solutions include lifestyle changes such as getting regular exercise and reducing your intake of caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco.
Some patients may need a prescription drug to relieve their RLS. Treatment options include drugs that boost the action of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, sedatives, antiseizure medications, and narcotic pain killers. A drug that works for one patient may be completely ineffective in another. Finding a solution may take a bit of trial and error, but RLS sufferers can usually find relief.
Editor’s Note: NWH has been recognized by US News & World Report “Best Regional Hospitals” in five specialties: Urology, Gynecology and Geriatrics, Orthopedics, and Neurology