The Woolcock Institute of Medical Research

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Restless Legs Syndrome – The sleep thief

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Thousands of Australians struggle with sleep disturbances caused by Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS), a condition where a person has an uncontrollable urge to move their legs (and sometimes arms) at night when resting.  

It is estimated that up to 12% of adults are affected and in extreme cases, symptoms include aching, throbbing, burning, itching and stinging, with some patients “thrashing around on the floor and unable to sleep for hours”.

Restless Legs Syndrome can begin at any age and the risk increases as you get older. It is more prevalent in women, with pregnancy being a significant contributor, along with iron deficiency and kidney disease.

Dr James Di Michiel from the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research says that most cases of RLS are mild and can be treated with non-drug therapies. However, in more severe cases, a doctor may prescribe medications to manage symptoms which will help with sleep.

More recent evidence has shown that there are alternative medications to previously recommended first-line dopamine-like drugs which, despite working well initially, have now been shown to potentially worsen symptoms over time with higher doses and prolonged use.

If symptoms are bothersome and affecting your sleep, Dr Di Michiel advises to seek help from a GP and if needed, ask for a referral to a specialist.

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