Detecting restless legs

BACKGROUND: Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder characterized by an uncontrollable urge to move one's legs in an attempt to relieve unpleasant tingling sensations. These sensations are often described by sufferers as burning, creeping, tugging or like insects crawling inside the legs. The sensations range in discomfort from uncomfortable to irritating to painful. The most distinctive marker of the condition is that lying down and relaxing activates the symptoms. As a result, most sufferers have a difficult time falling asleep or staying asleep.

More than 80 percent of RLS sufferers also experience a more commonly known condition, periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD), characterized by spontaneous leg twitching or jerking every 10 to 60 seconds during sleep. RLS, left untreated, can create daytime exhaustion and fatigue, forcing sufferers to seek medical help. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the condition affects more than 12 million Americans, affecting women slightly more than men. Doctors don't know what causes RLS, but three gene variants have recently been discovered that together account for 75 percent to 80 percent of cases, suggesting the condition is hereditary. If one of your parents had or has restless legs, there is a 50-percent chance you will also have RLS.

DIAGNOSIS IS KEY: Before an RLS sufferer can get help, proper diagnosis of the severity of his or her condition must occur. Researchers from Emory University Medical Center in Atlanta, Ga., are using an ankle strap device to track the number, frequency and severity of a sufferer's leg movements while he or she sleeps. Periodic movements captured by the ankle device, in combination with high throughput technology from deCODE Genetics in Iceland, have allowed researchers to make the connection between RLS and three gene variants.

RLS does get worse with age and new research shows it may contribute to cardiovascular disease. The ankle device has increased the accuracy in conferring a diagnosis and extends doctors' understanding of the full spectrum of the disease.

TREATING RLS: For those with mild to moderate symptoms of RLS, prevention is key. Many physicians suggest lifestyle changes and activities to reduce or eliminate symptoms. Decrease use of caffeine, alcohol and tobacco may provide some relief. Maintaining a regular sleep pattern may reduce symptoms, as can some prescription medications. In 2005, ropinirole hydrochloride (Requip) became the only drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration specifically for the treatment of RLS.

Source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and David Rye, M.D., professor of neurology at Emory University.


Jennifer Johnson
Emory University Medical Center
Atlanta, GA
(404) 727-5696

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