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Diagnosing Restless Leg Syndrome

With about 12 million diagnosed cases in the U.S. alone, restless legs syndrome is slowly, but surely becoming a more widely recognized condition.

"Some people will get it once a year when they take a long plane ride, some women will get it only just before their period, some people will get it just if they are very tired," said Dr. John Winkelman, director of Sleep Health Centers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "And then there are people who get it predictably, who get it once or twice or four times a week or unfortunately even every night."

Click here to watch a video on treating and diagnosing RLS

RLS is a disorder that disturbs a person's sleep pattern. It is often under- and misdiagnosed. That was the case for 67-year-old Shelia Connolly, who has been battling the disorder for 50 years.

"It took me a long time to find out what it was," she said. "My primary care physician did not know what I had. I was sent to one neurologist who knew what I had, but did not know how to treat it. Then I was sent to a third neurologist. This (occurred) over a course of many years.

The typical creeping and crawling sensation kept Connolly awake for hours and she only felt relief by standing or walking. Doctors still don't know exactly what causes RLS, but there are some contributing factors.

"There are three main things that we are focusing on," said Winkelman. "One is the dopamine activity in the brain. Two, is brain-iron levels. The best data shows the brain-iron levels are low in people with RLS. And third there is clearly a strong genetic influence in people with RLS."

Medication has helped to relieve Connolly's symptoms. Other patients find changing their daily routines and being aware of certain triggers can help. Doctors are getting a little help as well. That's why the RLS simulator was created. It mimics symptoms to allow doctors to better pin point and diagnose the disorder.