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Get Those Restless Legs To A Doctor

Little-known late-night syndrome keeps many awake and wondering

SUNDAY, May 20, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- It's no secret that many Americans could use a lot more sleep. But for the millions who suffer from a condition known as restless legs syndrome (RLS), getting a good night's sleep isn't as easy as cutting back on the coffee.

Believed to affect approximately 12 million Americans, RLS keeps people awake with a tingling sensation in a limb that causes them to want to move the limb, usually a leg.

The sensation, often also described as a "crawling" feeling or an "internal itch," typically occurs when a person tries to rest; it doesn't usually happen when engaged in activity.

The condition's cause is unknown. But according to Allan O'Bryan, acting executive director of the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation in Rochester, Minn., researchers believe RLS is a neurological condition.

"Researchers have linked it with certain receptors in the brain," he says.

Despite the fact that so many people appear to suffer from the condition, few go to doctors for help. And even if they do, few are offered treatment for a number of reasons, says Dr. Mark Mahowald, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorder Center at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.

"Most patients wind up seeking medical attention because their insomnia has become so bad and they may not even attribute it to the feeling in their legs. All they know is they can't sleep," he says.

"Yet when they do show up at the doctor's office, they find that insomnia is often discounted and a big reason is because one-third of medical schools in this country don't even mention sleep medicine on the entire curriculum," he adds.

"So physicians who have never heard of the restless legs syndrome have no way of diagnosing it, even if patients come in complaining of the leg discomfort. You can't even really blame the physicians because they were never trained and they have no clue."

One of the most effective treatments for RLS is use of the same drugs in the dopamine family that are used for patients with Parkinson's disease, O'Bryan says. However, RLS is not known to be associated with Parkinson's.

"RLS is a movement disorder, and yes, we believe it's neurological, but there just hasn't been enough research to show any kind of connection with Parkinson's," he says.

While some cases of RLS -- particularly in those who get the condition in their 20s and 30s -- appear to be genetically based, other cases are thought to be caused by iron deficiencies.

And stress seems to exacerbate symptoms. So doctors recommend that those with RLS cut back on alcohol, coffee and stressful situations.

O'Bryan urges those with RLS symptoms to see a doctor and bring up the possibility of the condition.

"The National Sleep Foundation conducted a poll asking if people felt creepy-crawly sensations that compelled them to move when they sleep. And it found that about 13 percent of the population said 'yes,'" he notes.

What To Do

You can call the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation patient hotline at 1-877-INFO RLS for more information, or visit the foundation's Web site.

And read more about sleep disorders in these HealthScout stories.

SOURCES: Interviews with Allan O'Bryan, acting executive director, Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation, Rochester, Minn.; Mark Mahowald, M.D., director, Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorder Center, Hennepin County Medical Center, Minneapolis, professor of neurology, University of Minnesota Medical School; Restless Legs Foundation press release
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