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RLS & Insomnia

You were recently diagnosed with restless leg syndrome, but now there’s something else to deal with – sleep problems. You may have the common sleep disorder insomnia, but symptoms of both conditions can be managed. Some people choose psychotherapy, while others pursue something newer: ketamine therapy.

What Is RLS?

Restless legs syndrome (RLS), also called Willis-Ekbom Disease, causes unpleasant or uncomfortable sensations in the legs and an irresistible urge to move them.  Symptoms commonly occur in the late afternoon or evening hours and are often most severe at night when a person is resting, such as sitting or lying in bed.”  

Restless legs syndrome can happen during times of inactivity and make it hard to fall asleep “or return to sleep after waking up.”  

What Is Insomnia?

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, insomnia is a widespread sleep disorder. It may affect up to 30 percent of U.S. adults. If you have insomnia, you may have problems falling asleep, maintaining sleep, or a combination of both. Because of this potent mixture, people who experience insomnia may not only get too little sleep but have low-quality sleep as a result. And you might not feel rejuvenated when sleep is over.

What Causes RLS?

Frequently, there’s no discernible cause for RLS. Instead, people who study it often believe it could be triggered by an imbalance of a brain chemical, dopamine, which sends messages to control muscle movement. Like glutamate, dopamine is a neurotransmitter that transmits different signals throughout the human body. RLS often begins before age 40 and may run in families, which may be hereditary. Research also finds that women in their first pregnancy could also have insomnia.

What Leads To Insomnia?

Many things can trigger insomnia: environmental, physiological, and psychological factors, including life stressors; an unhealthy lifestyle and bad sleep habits; depression or anxiety disorders; chronic diseases or pain conditions; gastrointestinal trouble; hormones; neurological disorders; sleep disorders; and medications or other substances. “A growing body of research suggests your genes may also play a role in whether or not you experience insomnia. We explore the latest genetic research on insomnia and share tips for better sleep.”

RLS & Insomnia

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers, “RLS wreaks havoc on sleep because lying down and trying to relax activates the symptoms. As a result, most people with RLS have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. Only getting up and moving around typically relieves the discomfort. The sensations range in severity from uncomfortable to irritating to painful.”

Some believe that weakened or damaged neurotransmitters in the brain like dopamine or glutamate can affect a person’s muscle activity and how they move. This muscle pain and trouble moving or sleeping can lead to insomnia, further solidifying the relationship between RLS and insomnia.

Evidence of the relationship between the two is strengthened further by the Sleep Foundation, which wrote: “The desire to move one’s legs makes falling asleep and staying asleep difficult for many people with RLS. A study found that 88% of individuals4 with RLS reported at least one sleep-related symptom. RLS symptoms often appear shortly after laying down at night, and patients will kick, squirm, or massage their legs to lessen the sensation. Some people with RLS are compelled to get out of bed and pace or stretch.”

By all accounts, the two seem to be inextricably linked. For example, the U.S. National Institute of Health says that in one study, people who suffered from restless legs syndrome were twice as likely to have sleep problems compared to people without RLS.

If you suffer from either restless legs syndrome or insomnia, it’s possible that treating symptoms of one may be beneficial to symptoms of the other. 

Diagnosis & Treatment

If you suffer from RLS, see your doctor for diagnosis, which may involve comparing your medical history and symptoms to criteria established by the International Restless Legs Syndrome Study Group. You may also see your healthcare provider to diagnose insomnia, which often involves discussing your medical history, sleep problems, and potential triggers. If there aren’t physical triggers for either condition, you may be referred to a mental health professional for a psychiatric assessment. Insomnia is often treated through psychotherapy and certain medications – the same applies to someone experiencing restless leg syndrome. 

Final Thoughts

If you’re one of the millions of U.S. adults who have restless legs syndrome or experience insomnia, don’t wait to get help until either condition begins affecting your quality of life. Solutions to reduce pain or other symptoms may be simple but talk to your healthcare provider about appropriate treatment.

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