Do your legs sometimes wake you up long before your alarm clock? Has your husband ever complained that you kick him in your sleep? Have you ever bolted awake, feeling as though you're tripping off a curb?
For many of us, such nocturnal jostling makes sleep anything but restful. Some of these experiences are nothing to worry about. Others are more troublesome and may require medical attention. Here, some of the most common nighttime occurrences:
A startling awakening is called a hypnic jerk - a harmless total body reflex that wakes people as they're falling asleep. "It involves a temporary disruption in the part of the nervous system that controls our sense of balance," says Gary Richardson, M.D., director of the Sleep Disorders Service at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital. If we feel we're losing balance just before we're completely asleep, we will involuntarily jerk our legs and arms to "catch" ourselves.
Leg cramps are usually the result of poor circulation or inactivity being stuck at a desk all day). They tend to be more frequent among pregnant women and the elderly. Less common causes include hypothyroidism (underactivity of the thyroid gland), kidney problems, or a shortage of minerals such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium, says June M. Fry, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Medical College of Pennsylvania.
To treat a cramp, stretch in the opposite direction of the cramp. For example, if your calf is tightening up, the best thing to do is flex your foot and grab your ankles or toes to stretch your calf. Getting up and walking also helps because it warms and stretches the muscles. For severe cases, a doctor can prescribe quinine.
Periodic limb movements are involuntary leg jerks that occur during sleep. "No one knows the cause, but they're a response of the nervous system," says Dr. Fry. Most people are awakened for only a few moments by such movements. If they're stopping you from getting a good night's sleep, however, see your doctor. They could be a side effect of a medication you're taking or a symptom of a disorder such as kidney disease.
Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) is a chronic leg jerk condition that can cause thrashing spells of 90 or more jerks per hour. The condition can happen to anyone, but pregnant women, the middle-aged, and elderly report it more often.
Sufferers complain of feelings of crawling and tingling in the legs. At night, the sensations are usually temporarily relieved only by getting up and walking, causing most victims to be severely sleep-deprived.
The actual cause of RLS is elusive. It can run in families, and many experts speculate that RLS is caused by a central nervous system disorder. It may also be a symptom of anemia or a complication of diabetes, kidney failure, or alcoholism. Some antidepressants can also cause it. The condition is treatable, but no one method works for everyone. To alleviate symptoms, some people take a hot bath or stretch before going to bed. You'll need to experiment to see which remedy works better for you. But see a doctor if RLS interferes with your daily activities.