In 1999, Dr. William Dement, the nation’s foremost sleep researcher, lamented that 15 to 20 million Americans with Restless Leg Syndrome had fallen into a major knowledge gap in the medical care system. Doctors simply didn’t recognize the symptoms, and, more importantly, didn’t understand the serious effects of restless legs on patients’ lives. Dr. Dement wanted to educate patients and their doctors, but sleep medicine didn’t attract much public attention. Then, in 2006, the pharmaceutical industry waded into the knowledge gap, launching an advertising campaign during the Superbowl for the first drug approved for the treatment of Restless Leg Syndrome, something most of the audience had never heard of. Advertising a disorder to market a drug is not the education Dr. Dement had in mind, but at least it generates interest and curiosity, the first steps toward knowledge.
“Syndrome” means a set of symptoms. Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) encompasses creepy, crawly sensations in the legs (but occasionally in the trunk muscles or arms), occurring mainly in the evening, getting worse on retiring for the night, and relieved by motion, particularly walking. The best estimates are that 5-15% of the population recognizes these symptoms as their own. More men than women are affected and frequency increases with age. The cause is unknown, but recent research suggests that iron metabolism in a tiny part of the brainstem is at fault.
RLS is also known as “Ekbaum’s Syndrome,” after Karl Ekbaum, who first described the problem in 1940. Jerry Seinfeld’s script writers added “Jimmy Legs” to the RLS lexicon when they had Kramer moan about a girlfriend whose nocturnal leg movements made him crazy. Kramer was actually describing not RLS but the primary sleep disorder that often accompanies it: periodic leg movement disorder (PLMD). In contrast to restless legs, Jimmy Legs often bother bedmates more than they do the afflicted sleeper, who spends much of the night bicycling away with no memory at all of the movements or of the multiple awakenings that accompany them.
More than a sleep disorder
Because restless legs cause insomnia and sleep deprivation, RLS is technically a sleep disorder. However, the sufferer’s waking world is also fraught with difficult situations that demand stillness. Theaters, airplanes, dental chairs – even operating tables- can be intolerable. The course of action taken for relief depends on the frequency and severity of the symptoms, balanced against the risks and side effects of the treatments considered.
The mildest version of RLS occurs in otherwise normal people after extreme physical exertion such as running a marathon, and it responds to time, rest and energy replenishment. At the severe end of the RLS spectrum are people whose trouble falling asleep and disrupted nighttime sleep produce severe daytime sleepiness. They need accurate diagnosis and treatment, by sleep specialists if possible. Between the mild, intermittent end of the spectrum and the severe extreme are all the rest of the RLS sufferers, including some pregnant women. These people are best served by an ongoing relationship with a doctor who understands the syndrome and the complete approach to treatment.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Treatment begins with a good history and physical exam. Restless legs are sometimes symptoms of peripheral nerve or kidney problems, and occur in the setting of diabetes. They can also reflect side effects of drugs such as antidepressants, antihistamines, and anti-nausea medicines. Even in the absence of medical problems, a check of the serum iron is on order since long clinical experience and new research implicate iron metabolism. Iron deficiency should prompt a search for a cause – usually bleeding or dietary insufficiency. Medications to reduce stomach acid, now in widespread use, can also cause iron deficiency.
Assuming there are no underlying medical problems, the next step is the elimination of stimulants from the diet – particularly in the latter half of the day. That means caffeine, cigarettes and alcohol – as well as any over the counter medicines of the types mentioned above. Developing mental alerting strategies to occupy the mind during times of boredom may help. When focused and occupied with games or puzzles the brain seems to suppress restless impulses. Increasing daily physical activity quiets the legs in over 50% of RLS patients.
When sleep suffers and normal life situations such as long automobile rides are intolerable, pharmacologic intervention is often necessary. The drugs that appear to be helpful fall into four classes: the ones that increase the neurotransmitter dopamine or act like dopamine (dopamine agonists); narcotics like codeine; the benzodiazepines like Valium, and the anticonvulsant Gabapentin. All of these are serious drugs with potential side-effects, not the least of which is a phenomenon called augmentation – the worsening of symptoms over time producing the need for more drugs. But the drugs can be true life-savers for people who are severely afflicted and in desperate need of sustained sleep and the ability to remain still.
What of the new drug touted in Superbowl ads in 2006, and a more contenders released since then? They are dopamine agonists, some of which have been around for years – FDA-approved for use in Parkinson’s disease, but also used “off-label” by doctors dealing with RLS patients. Their marketing focuses a light on the obscure world of sleep medicine, where devoted researchers who followed Dr. Dement continue to educate patients and doctors about the troubled sleep that generates many accidents and eats away at productivity and emotional resilience. That is a service to all.