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Need Help in Coping with 'Restless Legs Syndrome'?

February 05, 2013

New Support Group Starting in February at Washington Hospital

It's the end of a long day. You are more than ready to get a good night's sleep. After you finally doze off, though, you wake up with a "creepy-crawly, itchy, burning" sensation in your legs that disrupts your slumber and seizes you with an uncontrollable urge to move your legs.

Sound familiar?

"Restless legs syndrome - also called RLS - is a disorder that may lead to serious sleep deprivation that can result in daytime sleepiness or fatigue," says Dr. Nitun Verma, a specialist in sleep medicine and medical director of Washington Township Center for Sleep Disorders.

"People with RLS have uncomfortable sensations in their legs - and in some cases, their arms - that create an irresistible urge to move their limbs," he explains. "Only about 20 percent of RLS sufferers describe the sensations as 'painful.' More often, people say they experience sensations that are itchy, creeping, crawling, throbbing, tingling, gnawing or burning. I've even had patients who said it felt like they had soda water bubbling in the veins in their legs. While the sensations can occur during the daytime, they are most common at night after you have been lying down. People with RLS who can't sleep at night are the ones who suffer the most."

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that RLS may affect up to 10 percent of the U.S. population.

"That is a huge number of people who may need help with controlling their symptoms of RLS," Dr. Verma observes. "When we researched the resources for people who suffer from RLS, we discovered there were no support groups for RLS in the Bay Area. The nearest group is in Sacramento. So we decided it was time to offer a support group here at Washington Hospital."

The first meeting of the Restless Legs Syndrome Support Group is scheduled for Tuesday, February 19 from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. The gathering will be held in the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D., Auditorium in the Washington West Building located at 2500 Mowry Avenue in Fremont.

"RLS is not yet fully understood, but it seems to be a neurological condition - more of a nerve issue than a muscle issue," says Dr. Verma. "Most often, RLS occurs in people who are older, but we've seen it even in 5-year-olds. It's an 'equal-opportunity' disorder that affects both men and women, although some studies indicate women may be slightly more likely to develop RLS. In some cases, RLS appears to run in families, especially when the condition starts at an early age. There currently is a lot of research being conducted to identify the causes of RLS."

Dr. Verma, who is co-author of a discussion of restless legs syndrome in the online British medical journal "Epocrates," notes that while RLS is not a life-threatening disorder, it can significantly diminish a person's quality of life.

"Many people who have the symptoms of RLS don't bother to see a doctor because they assume that nothing can be done," he says. "Other times, they will go to the drug store seeking over-the-counter medications to treat their symptoms. Even those people who do see a doctor about their symptoms may not get the help they need because not all doctors are familiar with the condition. Instead, they might get prescriptions for sleep medications or muscle relaxants and keep trying medications that don't work."

The first step in treating RLS, according to Dr. Verma, is to avoid substances that may be contributing to or aggravating the problem, including alcohol, caffeine and tobacco.

"You also should review all your medications with your doctor to see if any of those drugs could be part of the problem," he says. "Some sleep medications, anti-nausea drugs, allergy medicines with antihistamines, and anti-depressants have been shown to make RLS worse.

"Your doctor also should provide proper treatment for any underlying medical condition that might be contributing to your symptoms - such as iron deficiency, diabetes, kidney disease, thyroid problems or Parkinson's disease," he adds. "It's also important to note that up to 26 percent of women who are pregnant may develop symptoms of RLS, but those usually go away on their own after the baby is delivered."

Dr. Verma suggests a variety of other self-help treatments that may be useful in relieving RLS symptoms:

  • Massaging your legs with either your hands or a vibrating massage tool before you go to sleep.
  • Applying hot or cold compresses to affected limbs.
  • Taking a hot or cool bath, perhaps in a jetted tub.
  • Follow a regular exercise program - moderate exercise often helps, although overly strenuous exercise may aggravate symptoms.
  • Try to reduce the stress in your life, possibly with techniques such as yoga or meditation.

For moderate to severe RLS symptoms that do not improve with lifestyle changes and self-help treatments - or that become increasingly worse - a doctor may prescribe various medications that could help.

"If you are suffering from symptoms of RLS, you are definitely not alone," Dr. Verma emphasizes. "We hope this new support group will help people with RLS discover new ways to cope with this sometimes-debilitating disorder so they don't lose any more sleep over it."

In addition to treating RLS, the Washington Township Center for Sleep Disorders can help people with other sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, insomnia, narcolepsy, sleepwalking and sleep disruptions related to menopause.

To register for the Restless Legs Syndrome Support Group session on February 19, call (510) 744-6726. For more information about Washington Township Center for Sleep Disorders, visit www.washingtonsleep.com. To read Dr. Verma's discussion of restless legs syndrome in the British medical journal "Epocrates," please visit https://online.epocrates.com/u/291165/Restless+legs+syndrome.

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