Neurological disorders like restless legs syndrome (RLS) are painful, but they can be treated. If you’re in constant pain at night or after long stretches of inactivity, there are ways to treat your condition.
Mostly, the cause of RLS is unknown, but there is a genetic link that can be found in families where symptoms start before age 40. Genetic variants have been linked to RLS, plus low quantities of iron in the brain. There also could be problems in a region of the brain called the basal ganglia, which uses the chemical dopamine and controls movement. Dopamine is required for smooth, focused muscle action and movement. Still, if its levels fall and pathways become disrupted, that can lead to the involuntary movement characteristic of restless legs syndrome.
Who Gets It?
Restless legs syndrome is a common sleep and movement disorder, affecting up to 10% of adults and 4% of children in the U.S. RLS also affects women more often than men, and it gets worse regardless of gender as people age.
The disorder tends to run in families. Many people with RLS say they have at least one affected blood relative, like a parent or sibling, and many families note several affected family members.
RLS is a Neurological Disorder
Restless legs syndrome is a dual disorder affecting both a person’s neurological functions and their ability to sleep. The central nervous system controls our neurological functions. The central nervous system is comprised of the brain, nerves in related areas, and the spinal cord. It controls and organizes everything you do, such as muscle movement, how your organs function, and higher-level functions like complex thinking and planning. If you have RLS, it’s not unusual for your sleep to be disrupted – you have trouble falling asleep, can’t stay asleep, or your sleep pattern is interrupted by the need to move or involuntary leg movements.
RLS is considered to be a sensorimotor neurological disorder or a disorder known for sensory-motor deficits. In the case of restless legs syndrome, someone may experience an intense desire to move their legs as a form of relief. Still, the relief is temporary and sometimes accompanied by physical discomfort. With RLS, your legs can feel pain more easily, even with minimal contact. Sensory receptors in the central nervous system have malfunctioned, leading to pain associated with this kind of neurological disorder. Faulty neurotransmitters in the brain play a role in restless legs syndrome, too.
RLS and the brain’s motor cortex is also an area worth exploring. The motor cortex is a region inside the brain’s cerebral cortex “involved in the planning, control, and execution of voluntary movements.” The motor cortex has two parts — the primary motor cortex and the nonprimary motor cortex, with the primary cortex responsible for starting motor movements. If signals to direct movement are disrupted, people who experience a neurological disorder like restless legs syndrome may have problems with movements in one or both legs.
Signs of neurological problems will vary by person. Someone with restless legs syndrome, for instance, may experience the same warning signs as a person with a sleep disorder. Still, that person’s healthcare provider may arrive at a different diagnosis. If you have a neurological disorder, you may have any of the following signs:
- Problems with headaches. People with migraines and RLS have significant issues with disrupted sleep.
- Loss of sensation or tingling
- Weakness or less muscle strength
- Lack of coordination
- Muscle inflexibility
- Tremors and seizures
- Back pain which can go to other body parts
- Pain sensations typically start while you’re resting, mostly after lying flat or immobile for a long time. This can happen when traveling by car, airplane, rail, or seated in a movie theater.
- If you stretch, jiggle your legs, or pace or walk, you may experience short-term respite from the pain.
- Symptoms get worse at night.
- Most of the time, your leg or legs will twitch at night. This may also be linked to another, more common condition named periodic limb movement disorder. This makes your legs twitch and kick, possibly during the entire night, when you’re sleeping.
Diagnosis & Treatment
Diagnosing RLS is often based on your symptoms and how painful they may be, as determined by the International Restless Legs Syndrome Study Group. Many treatment options are available, including medicine, muscle relaxers, sleep aids, and ketamine therapy.