Do you have restless legs? Well, science could be on its way to uncovering the root of this problem. And finding the cause is often the first step to finding a cure or effective treatment.
Up to 10% of the population in this country might have “restless legs syndrome” (RLS). This condition is an uncomfortable feeling in the legs when sitting or lying down. RLS sufferers describe the feeling as “crawling,” “jittery,” “tingling,” “aching,” and “burning.” You feel unable to keep your legs still. Moving around constantly is the only way you get relief. For some people it’s just uncomfortable, but for others this sensation can be unbearable. Even though it’s most common in the legs, as you can see by its name, RLS can also occur in the arms. RLS is a lifelong condition, and often gets worse with age.
Many people with RLS also have “period leg movement during sleep” (PLMS). This disorder means that a person’s leg, ankle, and big-toe muscles tend to flex while he or she is sleeping. The disorder itself does not seem all that serious, but it can disrupt your sleep patterns, causing you to be sleepy, less alert, and to have slower mental function during the day. Moreover, it can be a sign of a more serious condition.
Note that there are five stages of sleep, with stages three and four being periods of deeper sleep; REM sleep involves dreaming, increased heart rate and breathing, and muscle twitches. Many believe REM sleep to be extremely important for maintaining optimum mental function and think that a lack thereof for an extended period could cause major problems. The cycles repeat over and over again throughout the night. So you can see how damaging the combination of RLS and PLMS can be. Discomfort and pain during the day and inadequate sleep during the night.
RLS is a syndrome that’s not fully understood yet. There is no cure and there are few treatments. So research into the how and why of RLS continues. And that’s where this latest groundbreaking finding comes in.
Since RLS seems to have a tendency to run in families, researchers went on a search for a possible genetic cause. An Icelandic study looked at 451 people who had RLS symptoms, plus 514 of their close relatives. The study participants filled out questionnaires and gave blood samples. The researchers monitored their movements during sleep.
At the end of the study, the researchers found that people with one specific gene were more likely to have the RLS/PLMS combo. In fact, these people were 50% more likely to have the condition than people without the gene. The research team also found that people with the different gene had up to 26% less iron in their blood than those without the RLS-related gene. Iron has a link to dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control health movement and feeling in the body.
So that’s two important findings, really. Number one is the possible genetic culprit behind RLS and PLMS. This discovery could help in diagnosis in the near future. Later on, it could lead to the development of treatments targeting the gene. Number two is the relationship between low iron levels and the leg movement disorder. This is also important. If you’re having RLS symptoms, you should talk to your doctor about your iron. Get your levels checked. If you’re low, work on an iron supplement plan with your doctor. You can also look into whether medications you’re on could be depleting your body’s iron stores.