Restless Leg Syndrome and Sleep Apnea

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder which affects the quality of your sleep. It is characterized by unpleasant sensations in the legs and strong urges to move the legs. While this can occur during the day, the symptoms tend to be worse later in the evening and overnight.

As the condition affects the quality of your sleep it is considered a sleep disorder like obstructive sleep apnea and insomnia. Indeed, people with obstructive sleep apnea are also more likely to suffer with RLS. Both conditions can result in daytime fatigue, poor concentration and increased irritability.

What Are the Symptoms of Restless Leg Syndrome?

There are a number of unpleasant sensations associated with restless leg syndrome. These include:

  • tingling in the legs
  • itching legs
  • burning sensation
  • leg jerking
  • throbbing

Different people may experience different sensations, with the symptoms becoming more extreme for some. A creepy crawly feeling in the legs or the sensation of having a fizzy drink flowing through the blood vessels is how some people have described RLS.

Women are twice as likely to experience RLS, and while it can strike at any age it is more prevalent among people over 45 years of age. The symptoms can become more frequent and last longer with age.

What Are the Causes?

Similar to other sleep disorders, the causes can differ between individuals and in some cases remain unknown. Certain lifestyle habits may negatively impact on the condition. Caffeine, alcohol and smoking can all affect the quality of sleep for the worse, which in turn can make restless leg syndrome worse.

Health conditions and further factors which could cause RLS include:

  • Diabetes – a condition which can cause damage to the blood vessels and nerves in the legs
  • Kidney failure – although the reason is not clear, RLS is common among people with kidney failure
  • Low iron levels – this affects brain cell communication, but is a condition which needs to be addressed by a doctor and not just by taking supplements on your own
  • Pregnancy – Pregnant women often experience RLS, although it goes away within a month after giving birth.
  • Medications – Certain medications including allergy medications, anti-depressants, as well as over-the-counter sleep aids can make your RLS worse

If there is a history of RLS in your family, then you may be more prone to the condition. 

The Link with Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea are two disorders which affect the quality of sleep, increasing the risk of serious health complications as well as having a detrimental effect on your personal and professional lives.

Obstructive sleep apnea causes frequent awakenings through the night as the brain awakes the body for air due to breathing difficulties caused by a narrowing of the upper airways. Similar to RLS, obstructive sleep apnea is more common among people over 40 years of age. The two sleep disorders also share common negative influences in caffeine, alcohol and smoking.

If you have severe RLS, you may get less than five hours of sleep each night, but even milder symptoms can affect sleep quality. Research shows people with obstructive sleep apnea are more likely to suffer with RLS. One study reported 8.3% of those with sleep apnea also experienced significant RLS, (meaning they displayed RLS symptoms at least twice a week). This compared to just 2.5% of the study group who did not have sleep apnea.

Restless leg syndrome negatively impacts sleep apnea, by making it harder to sleep. However, studies suggest those with sleep apnea who use CPAP therapy to treat their disorder could also see benefits with their RLS symptoms. Indeed, one study reported that over 50% of patients using CPAP were able to reduce their RLS drug therapy.

Treating Sleep Disorders

For relief from sleep disorders such as RLS and obstructive sleep apnea, diagnosis is paramount. If you are experiencing symptoms of RLS or sleep apnea, and are struggling to sleep, then you should consult your doctor. They may recommend a sleep diary and possibly a sleep study if they believe you might have a sleep disorder.

Once RLS is diagnosed, medication is often used to manage RLS. As well as the lifestyle habit changes already touched upon such as reducing caffeine and alcohol consumption and quitting smoking, improved sleep hygiene can also encourage sleep and help combat both RLS and sleep apnea. This includes:

  • Going to bed at the same time each night and getting up at the same time each morning
  • Developing a relaxing bedtime routine which may involve reading, meditation or a hot bath (the hot bath option being particularly good for relieving the symptoms of RLS)
  • Having a good sleeping environment with a cool, dark bedroom without screens
  • Turning off blue light emitting screens an hour before going to bed

Sleep disorders such as restless leg syndrome and obstructive sleep apnea which are left untreated can have a seriously negative impact on your life. As well as the increased risk of health issues such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes associated with the sleep deprivation caused by these disorders, they also make you more likely to suffer with anxiety and depression.

Are you having difficulty falling asleep because of the urge to keep moving your legs or because of an itching or burning sensation in your legs? Maybe this stops briefly when you stand up and walk around. If so, you could have restless leg syndrome, and like sleep apnea, relief is possible. Consult with your doctor, and if diagnosed with a sleep disorder they can work with you to find a treatment plan to manage your condition.

If you are diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, SleepQuest Sleep Care Specialists can guide you to the best treatment for your condition.