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About Sleep Apnea & Restless Leg Syndrome

By Lia Stannard ; Updated August 14, 2017

Sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome can affect patients' quality of sleep. With sleep apnea, patients stop breathing for periods of 10 seconds or more while asleep, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Patients with restless leg syndrome have unpleasant sensations in their legs and feel like they need to move them. MedlinePlus points out that these sensations can last for an hour or more.


Two types of sleep apnea exist: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke explains that obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type, which results from soft tissue relaxing in the back of the throat. Damage to the brainstem can cause central sleep apnea, though one form of central sleep apnea results from heart failure. Other cases of central sleep apnea have no apparent cause. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke notes that about 50 percent of restless leg syndrome cases have a genetic cause, though many times the cause is unknown.


Restless leg syndrome causes tingling, crawling, aching or searing sensations in the legs. Some patients have these sensations in their feet, upper legs or arms as well. MedlinePlus points out that besides at night, restless leg syndrome can occur during the day after long periods of sitting. These symptoms can worsen with stress. Symptoms of sleep apnea include fatigue, daytime sleepiness, restless sleep and headaches in the morning. Patients with central sleep apnea can also have weakness, difficulty swallowing and voice changes. Other symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea include depression, problems concentrating and personality changes.


MedlinePlus explains that doctors will do a sleep study to test for sleep apnea, also called a polysomnogram. Doctors can also perform a physical examination and check the function of the patients' lungs, thyroid and heart. No specific tests exist to diagnose restless leg syndrome, though doctors may do blood tests to test for iron deficiency anemia, which patients may also have with restless leg syndrome; MedlinePlus notes that this is rare.


No cure exists for restless leg syndrome. Patients can reduce their symptoms by destressing and relaxing their muscles, such as with massage or warm baths. Some medications, like pramipexole, can help with symptoms. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke notes that benzodiazepines for restless leg syndrome, like diazepam, can worsen sleep apnea. The main goal of sleep apnea treatment is to help patients breathe while sleeping. Options include nasal CPAP, bilevel positive airway pressure and oxygen. Doctors may need to treat an underlying cause, such as heart failure, for central sleep apnea. Patients with obstructive sleep apnea may need surgery, such as uvulopalatopharyngoplasty, in which the doctor removes excess tissue at the source of the obstruction.


MedlinePlus explains that the prognosis of sleep apnea is good when patients receive treatment. Prognosis is worse in central sleep apnea cases that result from brainstem damage. While restless leg syndrome does not threaten patients' lives, it may cause insomnia.

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