You are lying in bed trying to fall asleep. But you can’t nod off because of an overwhelming urge to move your legs. What’s going on?
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You might have Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS), a neurological disorder in which you feel an uncomfortable sensation in your legs (such as throbbing, pulling or creeping sensations) that is associated with an uncontrollable urge to move them. When you move your legs, the urge to move is relieved partially or completely.
Symptoms occur usually at night when you’re trying to sleep or when you’re relaxing or resting. The severity of the symptoms, which can range from uncomfortable to painful, can increase during the night.
Although the sensations can occur on one side of the body, they most often affect both sides.
Easy to diagnose
About 5 percent to 10 percent of the population has RLS. More than twice as many women have RLS than men.
Some people with RLS will not seek medical attention, believing that they will not be taken seriously, that their symptoms are too mild, or that their condition is not treatable, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The condition may come and go, and this can make it difficult for doctors to diagnose when RLS is mild.
A doctor looks for certain key features when diagnosing RLS. One is that moving your legs relieves the discomfort, says Charles Bae, MD.
Dr. Bae is a sleep medicine specialist who sees patients at the Sleep Disorders Center in the Neurological Institute at Cleveland Clinic.
“You need to have an urge to move your legs for some reason, either because of discomfort or pain,” Dr. Bae says. “But for some reason, moving the legs helps to relieve that urge to move.”
Another classic feature of RLS is a distinct symptom-free period in the early morning, which allows for more refreshing sleep, according to the NIH.
Triggers might include periods of inactivity such as long car trips, sitting in a movie theater, long-distance flights, immobilization in a cast, or relaxation exercises, the NIH says. Many people with RLS say their symptoms get worse if they lose sleep time because of events or activity.
The cause of RLS is not known, but research has uncovered a link between RLS and low iron levels in the brain or low levels of dopamine. There also may be a genetic component, the NIH says. RLS also can be caused by chronic conditions such as kidney disease, some medicines or pregnancy.
Strategies for RLS
There are prescription medicines to treat RLS, but not all patients with RLS need to take medications right away.
Here are five strategies Dr. Bae recommends you can try on your own:
- If RLS strikes while you’re asleep or trying to sleep, try taking a quick walk to the kitchen or the bathroom. Often just getting out of bed very quickly will make symptoms disappear.
- If you’re in bed and symptoms strike, try rubbing or lightly massaging your legs.
- Take a warm bath or shower before retiring for the night.
- Read, do crossword puzzles, play a game on your smart phone or find some other mind-engaging activity before bedtime.
- Once in bed and feeling drowsy, try to keep yourself awake until the last second when sleep arrives. You may be able to fall asleep despite experiencing RLS symptoms.
If RLS is routinely waking you up at night or preventing you from falling asleep, Dr. Bae recommends talking to your doctor or consulting a sleep medicine specialist.
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