When itchy, tingly legs keep you tossing and turning all night, which doctor do you call? Here’s the 411 on first steps when restless legs syndrome keeps you up all night.
When you’re sniffling and sneezing, you probably head to your primary care doctor for help. But when you’ve got what you suspect is restless legs syndrome — uncomfortable sensations that strike at night and won’t let you sleep — you might be wondering whether a specialist is in order.
Restless legs syndrome is a movement disorder that affects the nervous system. And while a neurologist could certainly diagnose and help you determine the right treatment plan for your restless legs syndrome, your primary care doctor should be able to diagnose and handle this common condition. However, in some instances your restless legs syndrome treatment team might need a few more medical pros.
Working With Your Primary Care Doctor
“Family and internal medicine providers diagnose restless legs syndrome regularly,” says Brinkley Sugg, FNP-C, a family medicine nurse practitioner at Duke Primary Care Morrisville in North Carolina. “RLS is diagnosed on the basis of symptoms described, and primary care providers can listen to the patient and determine whether or not it sounds like RLS. Ideally you should get both expertise and a good relationship with your primary care experience. You’re going to get the best care when you can work in partnership with an experienced and reputable primary care provider — your partnership with your primary care provider should be rooted in mutual trust.”
If you already have a good relationship with your primary care doctor, reach out to him or her first to talk about your symptoms. “If you suspect restless legs or if your sleeping partner complains of the constant movement associated with RLS, I recommend scheduling an appointment with your primary care provider, who should listen to you and work with you to determine the diagnosis and develop a plan of treatment,” says Sugg.
For some people, restless legs syndrome is related to another condition, such as diabetes, pregnancy, or kidney failure. Because controlling those conditions can often help bring RLS symptoms under control too, it makes sense to consult the doctor who is managing the other condition for you — that may be your primary doctor or a specialist.
Regardless of which doctor you see first, your sleep habits are an important part of your RLS consultation — be prepared to talk about whether you have trouble sleeping, how much sleep you get, and whether you stick to a regular sleep schedule. But if your doctor doesn’t bring up this topic, you should. Restless legs syndrome symptoms affect your sleep, and good sleep is essential to good health.
When You Might Need a Second Opinion
Your doctor may suggest a consultation with a neurologist and possibly a neurological workup. “If your primary care provider is having difficulty making the diagnosis or if there are other concerns, a referral to neurology or for a sleep study might be appropriate,” says Sugg.
Another possibility is that your doctor recommends physical therapy to help manage your restless legs syndrome, especially if you’re struggling to control your symptoms. “Physical therapy might play a role in RLS,” says Sugg. This is because regular movement and good muscle tone can help.
Don’t Delay Getting Medical Attention
Perhaps most important of all is not ignoring signs of restless legs syndrome. If left untreated, restless legs syndrome may result in more serious health problems. A Korean study published in the journal Sleep Medicine found that people who suffer from restless legs syndrome experience a lower quality of life than those without RLS. And the lower the quality of life due to RLS, the greater the incidence of depression.
So address your symptoms with your doctor and then choose the best path for you. Work with a doctor whom you trust and are comfortable talking with and who has expertise in dealing with restless legs syndrome. Together you can create a plan that focuses on improving your overall health and taming your RLS symptoms.
By Diana K. Rodriguez