Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) and Sleep

(Last Updated On: October 6, 2019)

How people sleep with the Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS), is a neurological disease that causes an irresistible urge to move your legs, often accompanied by unpleasant or unusual sensations. RLS symptoms may also involve arms and other body parts. Because RLS most often occurs in late evening, it can severely disrupt sleep and reduce the quality of your life.

Using sleep data and self-reported behaviors, factors like exercise, caffeine, and alcohol intake affect sleep among people with RLS symptoms:

  • People with RLS take an additional 10 minutes to fall asleep (i.e. 55 minutes  versus 45 minutes for the general population);
  • People with RLS sleep on average 73 hours less over the course of one year when compared to the general population;
  • People with RLS that drink coffee during anytime of the day may increase their toss and turns during sleep by up to 23%;
  • People with RLS that exercise late in the day can lead to 30 minutes less sleep (i.e. 6:36 hours versus 7:06 hours for the general population);
  • People with RLS that take 4 or more alcoholic drinks per day will wake up 60% more during the night, lowering significantly the quality of their sleep.

Here are 5 tips you can try on your own for easing restless legs:

  1. Take a warm shower or bath just before bedtime;
  2. Do crossword puzzles or another mentally engaging activity before you go to sleep;
  3. When RLS symptoms develop in bed, try massaging or rubbing lightly your legs;
  4. If RLS strikes when you’re asleep, get out of bed quickly for a brief walk in-house and such symptoms might just disappear; and
  5. Avoid spending more than 30 minutes awake in bed with such symptoms… you don’t want to develop any insomnia disorder.

Causes of RLS

  • While the true cause of RLS is still unknown, researchers have uncovered a link to iron deficiency and/or dopamine in the brain.
  • Genetics may also be a factor because RLS often runs in families. However, other medical conditions such as low levels of iron, pregnancy or renal failure may cause RLS to occur more frequently;
  • Roughly 20% of women develop RLS during pregnancy, but such symptoms often disappear a few days before or after child birth;
  • Brain iron deficiency is a contributing factor for the development of RLS;
  • RLS is common in patients who require dialysis for end-stage renal disease;
  • Damage to the nerves of the hands or feet from any number of causes, including diabetes, often accompanies the disease.
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is common in children and adults with RLS.

Periodic Limb Movements in Sleep (PLMS)

A key issue for people who have RLS symptoms is difficulty in falling or staying asleep. 80% of individuals with RLS have periodic limb movements during sleep (PLMS). These movements occur every 20-30 seconds, on and off, throughout the night, causing partial awakenings that disrupt sleep.

If these RLS symptoms continue to prevent you from falling asleep or routinely wakes you up at night, talk to your doctor and start collecting, tracking, and analyzing your own sleep data. A good night’s sleep will help you function at the very best of you.

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