Night brings some people unwillingly to their feet

Restless Legs Syndrome often undiagnosed despite suffering it causes

April 06, 2003|By Korky Vann | Korky Vann,Special to the Sun

They roam the night, desperate for relief from a condition no one really understands. They're not insomniacs, but these individuals -- and there are millions, many of them elderly -- suffer from Restless Legs Syndrome, a debilitating nocturnal neurological disorder that compels those afflicted to leave their beds and pace until the symptoms subside.

The primary manifestations of the condition are jerking or twitching movements, usually in the legs, that most often occur when asleep, sitting still or resting. Dr. Gerard Kerins, a geriatrician at the University of Connecticut Center on Aging in Farmington, says sufferers use a variety of words to describe their symptoms, including, "burning," "pulling," "prickly" and, infrequently, "painful."

Sensations are usually accompanied by an overwhelming urge to move or walk. Because the symptoms usually worsen during the night, patients -- and their partners -- frequently report problems with sleeping and daytime fatigue.

"No one knows why this occurs, and there is no cure," says Kerins. "It's not life-threatening, but it's real, and it can negatively affect quality of life of the person dealing with it."

According to Kerins, the condition is often missed or misdiagnosed by physicians unfamiliar with the syndrome, and the result is an army of sleepless seniors. The National Institutes of Health estimate that this little-known disease affects more than 12 million Americans. One of 10 people over the age of 60 is affected; by age 80, the numbers increase to one in five. Dr. William Dement, author of The Practice of Sleep, writes: "RLS has got to be the biggest completely unaddressed health care priority in America. RLS sufferers are among the most sleep-deprived patients we see in our practice." Chronic lack of sleep can lead to depression, accidents and poor health.

Researchers say in some cases, the sensations may be the result of nerve damage or poor circulation. People with Parkin-son's disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, anemia or alcoholism may be more prone to RLS. The syndrome tends to run in families. Some studies indicate that stress, alcohol and foods and drinks high in caffeine can worsen it. While Restless Legs Syndrome can't be prevented or cured, treating diseases and conditions that contribute to the syndrome can help limit the severity of the symptoms.

The Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation (www.rls.org), a nonprofit organization based in Minnesota that works to raise awareness of the condition and funds studies to find medications and therapies, says some drug treatments have been shown to help. Those most commonly prescribed include dopaminergic agents (the same medications used to treat Parkinson's disease, but given in much lower dosages), sedatives, pain relievers and anticonvulsants.

The foundation, which publishes a quarterly newsletter, Night Walker, also suggests that regular exercise, stretching, taking a hot or cold bath, massaging the affected limb, applying hot or cold packs or practicing acupressure and / or relaxation techniques (such as biofeedback, meditation or yoga) may help reduce or relieve symptoms.

"If you've got these symptoms, talk to your doctor about them, and don't let anyone tell you it's 'just part of getting old,' " Kerins says. "Restless Legs Syndrome is not a normal condition of aging."

Korky Vann wrote this article for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

More information

For the free booklet "Living With Restless Legs," which includes information on diagnosis and treatment of RLS, call the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation toll free at 877-463-6757.

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