Is Restless Leg Syndrome Causing Your Insomia
Updated: Dec 13, 2019
You may have had this happen to you, but not know what it's called. In the middle of the night, as you're sleeping peacefully, your leg starts waking up. It's more than the typical "my leg fell asleep" pins and needles, for that matter, it's a jerky compulsion to move the leg and a general discomfort from leaving it in place. And for some reason, it won't go away.
The sleep disorder known as restless leg syndrome (aka RLS or Willis-Ekbom disease) bothers many people. It's called a sleep disorder because its symptoms usually manifest during the sleeping hours, and, of course, because it does disrupt sleep. In fact, some have reported it happening during an attempt to rest or sleep. More than just a sleep disorder, however, it's a movement disorder due to the need for movement to try and dispel its discomfort.
Ultimately, however, the best term for it is a neurological sensory disorder. Why? Because despite its association with sleep and movement, the roots of the symptoms tend to come from the brain.
WHAT CAUSES RLS?
There is currently no identified, specific cause for RLS. However, findings suggest that it is associated with genetics and certain gene variants. Some studies do draw a connection between low brain iron levels and RLS.
However, some studies do connect RLS with other medical conditions, like sleep apnea, renal disease, iron deficiency, and nerve damage, as well as some lifestyle choices like alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine intake.
HOW IS RLS DIAGNOSED?
Doctors tend to look for five indicators for RLS, because there is no formal test for it.
A nagging urge to move the legs, accompanied by low to high levels of discomfort.
The urge to move being felt during rest or sleep or inactivity.
The urge occurring late at night, during hours of sleep.
The urge and discomfort only being alleviated by moving the legs.
The lack of another medical condition that would be the culprit for the above signs.
To diagnose RLS, your doctor may need to gather additional details about your symptoms and when they manifest during the day (remember, the typical pattern is for them to occur at conventional sleeping hours). Questions about family and medical history can also be expected. Because of the other maladies associated with RLS, lab tests to rule out iron deficiency anemia or kidney issues might be needed, not to mention sleep study.
HOW CAN WE TREAT IT?
The closest thing to immediate treatment, of course, is movement. Moving around for a bit will dispel the restlessness, but the relief gained by playing into it is only temporary, not to mention potentially as disruptive to sleep as the original ailment was.
As yet, no permanent cure has been found for RLS and its symptoms, although some approaches have been said anecdotally to provide lasting relief for longer periods. One way to address RLS would be to address the bigger medical condition that tends to bring it on as a side effect or issue, such as diabetes or iron deficiency.
Perhaps the most important thing, if one can call it that, is that while there seem to be similarities, the onset of RLS does not automatically indicate the likelihood of similar neurological diseases, like Parkinson's.
There are a number of options for treatment.
Taking iron supplements. RLS is associated with an iron deficiency, and so it makes good sense to shore that up. However, the effects and management of RLS via iron supplements won't turn out to be the same for everyone. Keep in touch with your doctor, who may after some time recommend a switch in medication as the supplementation might be less effective over time.
Modifying your lifestyle. Lifestyle choices are in many cases associated with RLS, and as such it makes sense that to work toward eliminating the latter, one can change the former. If you consume alcohol, or smoke, or drink coffee, or have an erratic sleep schedule, these are prime targets for modification and adjustment in order to try and do away with RLS. A moderate exercise regimen can also be helpful in making sure the legs are in good shape.
Taking medications with dopaminergic agents. Such meds scale down the impact of dopamine, which will result in a reduction of involuntary jerky movements such as the kind that RLS brings on. However, it's worth noting that for some people, prolonged, chronic use may have side effects including worsening of the symptoms, such as occurring earlier in the day, or the restlessness expanding upward through the body. In such a case your doctor will likely forewarn you of these possibilities, and advise you to drop the medication once this expansion happens.
Taking better care of your legs and feet. This includes ensuring that blood circulation is at optimum levels. Your legs do an enormous amount of work on a daily basis, raising and lowering and stabilizing your body through a whole range of movements. It's important to make sure that oxygenated blood flows properly throughout the internal structure, especially if you face risk factors like standing or sitting for long periods at work or on the road.
Another way to help this along is to wear cotton compression socks, such as the hypoallergenic kind produced by SocksLane. The snug fit stimulates proper circulation, in the process also helping avoid nasty issues like deep vein thrombosis.