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In The News

Paula Schweitzer, PhD, director of research at the Sleep Medicine and Research Center at St. Luke's Hospital

Restless legs syndrome is no laughing matter

Internet videos attempt to present a humorous side to the term "restless legs syndrome" (RLS) with depictions of people with wildly flailing legs, much like The Three Stooges' "Curly" running in circles while lying on his side.

But try to make light of RLS with someone who has it, and be prepared for a reality check. "There is no humor involved," said a patient in her 50's. "It's the most irritating, frustrating experience... trying to relax in the evening or fall asleep at night, and then it feels as if the muscles in my legs are going to crawl right off my bones! I wear myself out some nights because I have to walk and stretch to stop that gnawing feeling." This woman and millions more know that RLS is a serious and often debilitating medical condition.

Roughly one out of every 25 adult women in the U.S. has RLS. That's double the number of men who are affected. RLS is more common during pregnancy, and research suggests RLS may be more common in menopausal women who experience hot flashes and are not using hormone replacement therapy.

RLS is best defined as uncomfortable feelings in the legs with an irresistible urge to move them. Some people who have RLS describe the sensations as "creepy crawly" feelings, an internal itch or the drawing up of their muscles. Many other people with RLS have difficulty describing their discomfort.

Symptoms are usually worse in the evening and during the night, and they typically occur while sitting or lying in bed. Symptoms may also occur while relaxing, watching a movie or sitting in an airplane. Moving, walking or rubbing the legs may provide temporary relief, but the problem returns when the legs are at rest. RLS can interfere with sleep and result in daytime tiredness.

While low iron levels may be a factor for some people, the cause of RLS is not known for most. There are medications available which may effective for many who have RLS. If you suffer from it, you and your physician can decide what's right for you.

Paula Schweitzer, PhD, is the director of research at St. Luke's Sleep Medicine and Research Center. Call 314-205-6011 or visit her Meet the Team page.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on April 9, 2009.