Sleep Disorders Involving the Legs

There are a couple of syndromes involving the legs that can have a negative impact on your ability to sleep, your partner’s ability to sleep, and the quality of the sleep that you get. They are restless leg syndrome and periodic limb movement disorder. Restless leg syndrome is a problem that its sufferers are all too aware of, while periodic limb movement disorder is generally known because of the extreme daytime exhaustion of those who have it, or reports from their sleeping partners. Both can cause insomnia or sleep deprivation.

 Restless Leg Syndrome

Between five and fifteen percent of the population are known to have restless leg syndrome. It is generally not a childhood problem, and doesn’t appear until people reach adulthood. Many pregnant women have it but find that after delivery it goes away. The problem does seem to have a genetic component, as it seems to run in families. Restless leg syndrome is described as a feeling that is experienced as annoying or irritating. It is said to feel like pins and needles or tingling either on the surface of the skin or at a much deeper level, even as an aching in the depth of the bones. Those who suffer from this condition find that it hits them when their legs are still and that the only thing that provides relief is when they move their legs. Restless leg syndrome is a condition that is not limited to the sleep hours; in fact it is generally considered a daytime condition and goes on all day long but worsens during the course of the day, so that people who have it find themselves unable to sit still during the time of the evening when most people are relaxing. This means that the amount of time that people have to wind down and prepare for sleep is severely limited. On top of that, some people with restless leg syndrome may actually have some aspect of their symptoms while they are asleep, and it may even waken them.  Interestingly, the awakening is less of a problem then getting back to sleep is, as the symptoms often prevent the person with the condition from lying still enough to sleep. There are several theories as to the cause of restless leg syndrome. The general consensus is hat it is caused by some time of nerve damage created by a vitamin deficiency or a medical condition such as anemia or diabetes. It may also be caused or exacerbated by a lack of exercise or certain drugs, including alcohol and caffeine. Treatments for restless leg syndrome are limited. Patients are advised to cut back on caffeine and to try to get more exercise. Besides those options, some have found that relaxing the legs via massage or stretching are helpful, and there are a few medications that have been found to help treat the problem.

Periodic Limb Movement Disorder

Unfortunately, those who suffer from restless leg syndrome also are likely to have a related condition known as period limb movement disorder. People who suffer from this condition are usually not aware that they have a problem, as it occurs while they are sound asleep and rarely wakes them. Generally what happens it that the legs (and sometimes the arms) go through episodes of movement throughout the course of the night. They twitch or move reflexively in a systematic way that is apparently caused by contractions within the muscles of the leg. They happen very regularly and are extremely brief, though they occur in groupings that go on throughout the course of the night. It generally does not occur during REM sleep, and seems to be made worse when the person is going through periods of stress or physical exhaustion. Though the person who is experiencing these movements is not awakened by them, their body is still going through more physical activity than is the norm during the time when it is supposed to rest, and the movement may be enough to rouse them from deep sleep to light sleep, thus robbing them of the much needed restorative aspects of their sleep.  If they are woken up they are usually not aware of why they awakened, though in the morning they are likely to encounter either a sleeping partner who is covered with bruises from having been kicked throughout the night, or a bed that looks as though it has been through a tornado, with the sheets and blankets in a state of total disarray. Periodic limb movement disorder happens to more of than most people realize – by the time we are over fifty approximately one in three adults has the condition, and almost half by the time we are sixty five or older. One of the reasons that people are so unaware of the situation is that if their sleeping partner doesn’t complain, the only indication that they have of their problem is the fact that they are tired, which most people attribute to other causes. If you think that you might suffer from periodic limb movement disorder, or if you find yourself exhausted despite the sense that you are getting enough sleep, then you need to get to a sleep lab, as that is the best way to definitively diagnose the condition. Treating the situation is difficult, and often starts with the same types of solutions found in other sleep disorders: cut down on caffeine, check for sleep apnea and consider taking medication to treat the problem. Many of the drugs that are used to treat restless leg syndrome will have a positive impact on periodic limb movement disorder as well, which is interesting because the two conditions have a tendency to both be present at the same time. For those who suffer from both restless leg syndrome and periodic limb movement disorder it is particularly important to get treatment, as the combination of movement during the day and during the night is physically depleting.