Restless Leg Syndrome
By David Martin, President and CEO of VeinInnovations
Restless Leg Syndrome has lately been in the news as researchers make strides in understanding the neurological disorder five to ten percent of Americans suffer from. Once famously described as “the jimmy legs” on Seinfeld, the actual condition is less amusing than the “show about nothing” portrays. This week, we’ll take a look at the common condition and the recently released research about RLS.
Restless Leg Syndrome is described by those who suffer from it as a creeping, unpleasant feeling in their legs – cramping, throbbing and pulling sensations cause an uncontrollable urge to move them. The feeling most often appears in the night while a person is relaxing or trying to rest. The sensations may increase in severity as the night goes on. Moving the legs provides relief, but has unintended consequences. On Seinfeld, Kramer declares his current girlfriend has “the jimmy legs” and is keeping him from sleep. It’s understood the girlfriend blissfully sleeps while tormenting Kramer’s repose with her movements. In reality, the person with RLS is left to toss and turn. Most people with RLS suffer from insomnia. They have difficulty falling and staying asleep and may suffer from sleep deprivation as a result.
Health professionals will tell you that “staying active” is a great way to improve or maintain overall health. They’ll also tell you how important it is to get in around seven to eight hours of inactivity every day. Sleep (or the lack thereof) affects every part of your health, and not getting regular, quality rest takes a toll. Without proper sleep, concentration, memory, physical and mental health suffers. Although treatments exist to calm the unruly appendages, insomnia often remains a problem for people with RLS and can be the most frustrating effect of the disease.
A small study recently published by researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine may shed some light on the connection between RLS and insomnia. Using MRI, researchers imaged the brains of 28 people with RLS and 20 people without. In the thalamus – the part of the brain involved with regulating consciousness, alertness, and sleep – they found abnormally high levels of glutamate in those with RLS. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter involved in arousal. The higher the levels of the neurotransmitter, the more problems with getting a good night’s sleep. The study was small, and more research is needed, but the team at Johns Hopkins hopes their findings will lead to better treatment for insomnia in people with RLS.
The research that grabbed the media’s attention earlier this month centered on a more gloomy finding. An observational study by Harvard researchers followed 20,000 men and found that those with RLS had a 39 percent higher risk of an early death than men without the condition. Men with RLS shouldn’t sound the alarm bells yet (though I don’t blame them or their loved ones for a moment of panic after reading the headlines!) The scientific community is debating how valuable the Harvard research is, and earlier studies have found no increased risk of early death in those with RLS.
There is not a medical test to determine whether or not you have RLS. Doctors diagnose the condition based on a person’s symptoms and a conversation. If you’re having trouble resting thanks to a “creepy-crawly” feeling in your legs, go have a talk with your doctor. RLS can happen at any age, though the most severely affected are the middle-aged. Symptoms tend to become more frequent and last longer with age. And don’t let the recent headlines fool you – women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with RLS than men. Some women will experience RLS during pregnancy (especially during the final trimester) that will subside after giving birth.
Treatment of RLS aims to ease the symptoms. Your doctor may counsel lifestyle changes, medication, or both. RLS symptoms can sometimes be lessened by beginning a regular program of exercise, or by more carefully regulating or eliminating caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco. Establishing healthy sleep patterns can also help. So can leg massages, possibly the nicest treatment the doctor could order! Don’t ignore your symptoms. Talk to your doctor if you suspect you have RLS. Symptoms range from mild to severe, but there are ways to help.
Next week, I’ll delve into the vital role sleep plays in our overall health, and how establishing good sleep habits help you get the seven to eight hours your mind and body need.