There are two main movement disorders that are responsible for sleep problems: Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) and Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD). RLS afflicts between 9% and 15% of the general population. That’s not a small amount of people.
People with the disorder have an irresistible urge to move their legs. Some people will say they feel their skin crawling. If you ignore the urge to move your legs, you can start to feel discomfort in your legs that gets worse and worse. The urge to move your legs is usually worse at night and the leg movement can keep you awake or prevent you from getting into a deep sleep.
RLS mostly affects the legs, but it can also affect your feet, arms and chest.
Periodic limb movement disorder is slightly different. With this disorder, people experience movements of their lower extremities that last from half a second to a full five seconds and it occurs within the first few hours of sleep. Most often, you’re not aware of these movements but you still experience partial awakenings throughout the night. Most people with RLS have PLMD, but PLMD is also present in a number of other sleep-related conditions.
Primary RLS happens on it’s own and can run in families. Meaning you can inherit it. Secondary RLS can result from certain drugs, iron deficiency, pregnancy, anemia and peripheral neuropathy. Peripheral neuropathy is something you can get from diabetes.
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What can you do about RLS? Well, if you have RLS from another problem, you would treat the other problem first. Then there are some behavioral things you can do such as decreasing the things that make RLS worse like caffeine, alcohol and tobacco. Keeping a regular sleep pattern, regular exercise, taking a hot bath, massaging your legs or applying heat or ice to your legs.
Another intervention that has been studied is the use of pneumatic compression devices. If you have ever had major surgery, these are those inflatable wraps they put on your legs to keep your blood flowing until you are able to get up and walk. So it squeezes the legs, which offsets the urge to move the legs.
As for medication. Sometimes iron supplements will help with restless legs even if you don’t have an iron deficiency. Other medication choices are dopamine-enhancing agents such as Pramipexole and Ropinirole, benzodiazepines and anti-seizure medications.
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