One in 10 Irish people is affected by a disorder which most people don’t know even exists
MY PARTNER calls it “the twitch”. From time to time if we are sitting close to each other she’ll notice my leg moving, often under tables at restaurants or last thing at night in bed. I hadn’t really taken much heed of it until she pointed it out, and then I put it down to excess energy or general restlessness.
So, imagine my surprise at a dinner some weeks back when a person working in the pharmaceutical industry, who had noticed my leg jiving under the table, not only named the affliction, but stated that the company she works for is actively looking at ways to relieve the symptoms. “You’ve probably got a mild form of Restless Leg Syndrome,” she said.
While Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) may sound like a Monty Python sketch, one in 10 Irish people is affected by various degrees of the disorder. For some, it can be a debilitating illness, leading to insomnia and severe discomfort. Others go through life living with a milder form of the condition and never need to seek medical help, or, like me, probably don’t even know it exists as a named disorder until it is pointed out.
The underlying causes of the condition are varied – it can be genetic or sometimes it can hint at more serious medical conditions. Until recently, relatively little was known about the condition, yet one Irish doctor has been leading the field in examining causes and possible solutions for those affected by the disorder.
Dr Shaun O’Keeffe, a consultant in geriatrics in NUI Galway, describes Restless Leg Syndrome as “both a sleep disorder and a movement disorder”. The symptoms include unpleasant sensation in the legs, often at evening or at night, whereby people feel the need to move their legs to relieve the discomfort. Because this occurs at night, it can have a serious impact on sleep patterns.
“In a mild form, it is quite common and for many of the people who have the symptoms, it runs in the family,” Dr O’Keeffe says. “For people where it doesn’t cause problems in terms of sleep and so on, then it is probably unfair even to label them with a condition. No intervention is required in the mild symptoms.”
With the more severe form of the disorder, there can be a significant effect on quality of life and definite medical intervention is needed.
Pfizer is undergoing clinical trials of a number of products to address these symptoms, from pneumatic compression devices to a new anti-seizure drug.
“In terms of treatment, there are two aspects,” says Dr O’Keeffe. “One is medication, and generally what is prescribed is similar to the type of products used in treating Parkinson’s disease. For people who develop Restless Leg Syndrome in later life, there may be an underlying cause, such as iron deficiency or kidney disease.”
One person who has experienced difficulties is mother-of-two Louise Barrett, who says she has experienced symptoms for much of her life. She says it also affected her married life, and that spouses are affected indirectly if their partners have RLS.
“I remember when I was young I used to say I wanted to bring my legs for a walk. I am a good sleeper, so thank- fully I didn’t have sleep problems. The next time when it became an issue was when I met my husband about 10 years ago. It can be frightening when you have to slam your legs to the bed in the middle of the night.
“He looked up the condition on the internet and came across a website for people affected by it. I read the first sentence and it described an ‘overwhelming urge to move limbs instantly relieved by movement’. I read that first line and could relate to it. I was shocked that this was an actual medical condition.”
Barrett says keeping hydrated helps ease her symptoms, as does cutting coffee and cola soft drinks from her diet. When she became pregnant with twins, her condition became more acute. “You go to bed fine, but after a while it feels like insects crawling inside your calf muscles. I used to walk the floors crying because I couldn’t go back to sleep.”
She says no support group exists in Ireland for the condition and believes that medication in development may be a positive step in treating the disorder seriously.
RESTLESS LEG SYNDROME: WHAT IS IT?
Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) is a movement disorder that affects one in 10 Irish people. The core symptoms are an irresistible urge to move the legs that can be aggravated by rest and relieved by movement.
Episodes of RLS generally occur between 10pm and 4am, and people who show signs of the disorder in early adulthood tend to come from families with a history of it. The main cause of the disorder is unknown, and treatment can include lifestyle and dietary changes.
Specific medication to treat RLS is in development.