Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) is the biggest cause of sleeping problems – yet many people, doctors included, aren’t even aware the condition exists or that it can be treated.
“I can’t keep my legs still. It feels as though I have thousands of little insects wriggling under my skin, or gas bubbles moving up and down my legs. Just thinking about having to sit still on a plane makes me feel anxious. Even a movie is too long.”
This plaintive cry comes from Rhonette Fick, who has suffered from RLS for years. Her friends thought she was having them on: how is it possible for someone to have an irresistible urge to move her legs? Or for her legs to kick and itch uncontrollably all night long?
But there are times when Rhonette gets so little sleep, she feel like a zombie.
Only one in 20 people with RLS is correctly diagnosed and treated, Professor Richard Allen, a neurologist at Johns Hopkins University in the USA, says. The majority of RLS sufferers are incorrectly diagnosed as suffering from sleep disorders (although people with RLS do sleep worse than people with other sleep disorders), anxiety, depression, poor circulation, arthritis, attention deficit disorder (if the patient is young and can’t keep his legs still) or plain old hypochondria.
Medical researchers have now discovered RLS is a metabolic brain disease. And effective treatment is available.
People with RLS – that’s one in every 10 of us – have a shortage of iron in certain areas of the brain. Known as the black and red centres, these areas deal with movement. Even if a blood test shows normal blood-iron levels, it doesn’t mean the iron levels in the brain are normal. Low brain-iron levels, which show up clearly on a brain scan, lead to a shortage of dopamine, which in turn causes those weird sensations in the legs and the uncontrollable urge to move them.
Research has also shown the following:
– 33% of RLS sufferers’ sleep is disturbed at least twice a week because of itching and kicking.
– Many RLS sufferers sleep only five hours a night.
– More women than men have RLS.
– There is a strong genetic factor. If your parents had RLS, you have a 30-50% greater chance of getting it too.
– It’s worse during periods of inactivity (at night and when you have to sit for long periods).
– Chances are slim that the condition will improve without treatment.
Do you have RLS?
Answering ‘yes’ to these four questions means you’re likely to have RLS, Professor Allen says:
1. Do you have an uncontrollable urge to move your legs, usually because you’re experiencing uncomfortable and unpleasant sensations in those limbs?
2. Do these unpleasant sensations get worse when you rest, sit, lie or are inactive?
3. Does walking, stretching or movement help to relieve these unpleasant sensations – even if the relief lasts only as long as you’re moving your legs?
4. Are the symptoms normally worse at night?
RLS can be treated
If RLS affects your sleep patterns only now and then, simple lifestyle changes – such as drinking fewer caffeine-rich beverages (e.g. coffee) or gradually cutting down on alcohol and cigarettes – can help. The right iron, folic acid or magnesium supplements can also improve your general health if you have a shortage of these minerals.
But if you experience RLS once or twice a day and it regularly deprives you of sleep, a pill that helps restore the dopamine levels in the brain (such as those used for Parkinson’s disease) could really make a difference.
First prize would be to restore the brain’s iron levels, but in people with normal blood-iron levels no iron in any tablet taken orally can move from the blood to the brain. So, second prize is to fix dopamine function by means of a drug that mimics the effect of dopamine. A tiny dose is enough to make a big difference.
Consult your doctor and get in touch with Sleep Disorders Australia via their website, Sleepoz.org.au. Sleep Disorders Australia is a voluntary organisation with branches in each State, providing information and support to sufferers of sleep disorders and their families.