Be Still, My… Legs

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MADISON, Wis. – They say it’s like spiders crawling up and down your legs.
Or like a tingling wave that never stops.

That’s how many sufferers of restless legs syndrome (RLS) describe the puzzling condition that makes it impossible for them to sit still or enjoy a full night’s sleep—because their legs are constantly tingling, twitching and needing to move.

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According to the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation, approximately 10-12 percent of Americans suffer from RLS, a neurological condition that has no obvious cause. Physicians believe it’s associated with a deficiency of iron in the blood or dopamine in the brain. To confuse the issue even further, RLS can also appear with conditions ranging from diabetes to pregnancy.

But unlike those who suffer from diseases like cancer and asthma, patients with RLS often also have to face confusion—and sometimes scorn—from friends and colleagues who believe their diagnosis is a joke, not an actual medical condition.

Not so.

“This is a real neurologic and sleep-related condition, with specific criteria for diagnosis and a growing body of scientific literature that helps define its causes and treatment,” says Dr. Stephen Barczi, associate professor of medicine at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. He treats at least one RLS patient per week as part of his work with Wisconsin Sleep, the clinical and sleep research center at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

“It’s also not a minor thing,” says Dr. Barczi. “Restless Legs Syndrome not only affects the ability to fall asleep, but some patients who have RLS can’t go to a theater or watch a movie. They have to constantly be moving around. They feel like they’re crazy, and they can’t describe what they’re feeling.”

That was the case for one of Barczi’s patients, a 58-year-old woman who began noticing about 15 years ago that she couldn’t keep her legs still, especially in the late afternoon and evening. The Madison woman describes her RLS as “a tingling wave” that starts at her knee and rushes down to her toes, jumping from leg to leg in a rhythm she’s unable to ignore. For years, it robbed her of productivity at work and regular sleep at night.

It took her two years to seek medical attention and get a diagnosis. Her doctor put her on ropinirole, one of several dopamine-based drugs that can sometimes offer relief to patients. Dr. Barczi also notes that RLS can be inheritable, with a positive family history in 40 to 60 percent of cases. The problem is slightly more prevalent in females.

Not all RLS patients need medication, but some can benefit from carefully chosen medications that can help control symptoms.


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