I’ve been researching sleep disorders recently, and one thing I was very surprised to discover was that Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a real thing. People always talk about it, but I did not know it was a diagnosable disorder. Who knew?
RLS, also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, is characterized by an irresistible urge to move one’s body (usually the legs, but it can extend to most of the body) to stop uncomfortable or odd sensations. The prevalence of the disorder increases with age, and is higher amongst women than men. Interestingly, the more comfortable a patient is, the more likely symptoms are to occur. Due to this, many who suffer from RLS find it easier to sleep on a hardwood floor than on a mattress.
While RLS doesn’t initially seem like a sleep disorder, its classification as such actually makes a lot of sense once you get to know the disorder better. One of the most common symptoms of RLS is a semirhythmic movement of the legs during sleep, which sometimes begin years before the more recognizable, wakeful symptoms. In addition, due to the discomfort brought upon by comfort, many who suffer from RLS struggle to get proper sleep; insomnia and fatigue are commonly reported.
The symptoms of RLS are easily treated with dopaminergic agents, which usually provide 90-100% relief. However, in addition to side effects, such as swelling of the extremeties, bloating, chest pain, and vomiting, the RLS symptoms eventually return stronger than ever, sometimes causing complete body discomfort at all times of day, even when walking. When taken off the medication, symptoms usually return to their baseline level. This would seem to indicate that the dopaminergic agents are not the most effective long-term solution to RLS.
Most patients with RLS have been shown to have very low iron levels, and in most cases, iron supplementation relieves all symptoms with no negative side effects. Because RLS is a relatively minor disorder, there has not been a lot of research into the treatment options beyond dopaminergic agents, which is really holding treatment back. Hopefully more research can be done, and RLS can go back to being the joke everyone makes about fidgety people.