Migraines and restless legs syndrome (RLS) are two widely experienced conditions that are widely misunderstood. Since the exact source of both of these issues isn’t entirely known, sufferers from the conditions often don’t know where to turn for support or treatment. Psychologists, neurologists, and physicians all only have one piece of the puzzle, so it can be challenging to get a comprehensive understanding and treatment plan.
To make matters more complicated, recent research has shown that the conditions seem to be comorbid — one study from Zhengzhou University claims that the prevalence of RLS is significantly higher among migraine sufferers than the general population, with a 22.29% incidence rate among the migraine patients they surveyed compared to a 6.62% incidence rate in the control group.
If you suffer from both of these conditions, or even just one of them, you’re likely all too familiar with the impact it can have on your quality of life. Continue reading to learn more about migraines and RLS, their potential connection, and some treatment options that might offer relief.
What Is a Migraine?
A migraine is much more than a headache — it’s a neurological condition that can cause intense, debilitating symptoms. According to the American Migraine Foundation, migraines affect more than 39 million people in the United States alone.
Migraine attacks can last for hours or even days, and they can be so severe that sufferers are unable to go about their normal activities. In addition to pain, migraines can cause nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. Some people also experience aura — visual disturbances that can include flashing lights, zig-zag lines, or temporary blindness.
Migraines usually come in episodic attacks, and most people experience them anywhere from once every few days to once or twice a year. A migraine attack usually lasts for four hours, but they can occasionally last for three days or more. 3% to 5% of the population suffers from chronic migraines, which means they experience headaches for at least 15 days a month, with at least eight of those days including migraine symptoms.
What Is Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)?
Restless legs syndrome, like migraines, is a neurological disorder. The key feature of RLS is that it causes an irresistible urge to move the legs, usually accompanied by a crawling, tingling, or prickling sensation. This urge to move is often worse at night or when lying down or sitting for long periods of time, and it can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. Many RLS patients only find relief through continually moving their legs.
While RLS may not initially seem that uncomfortable, over time, the lack of sleep and chronic fatigue may take a toll on mental health, leading to effects like increased frustration or depression.
The Connection Between RLS and Migraines
While the connection between migraines and RLS isn’t fully understood, there are a few possible explanations as to why these two conditions occur together so frequently.
Shared Nervous System Problems
One trait that RLS and migraines share is that they both involve issues with the central nervous system and its mechanisms of sensation and pain. The activation of sensitive pathways that occur in both disorders may lead to an increased perception of painful or sensory stimuli, which may cause a patient to be more susceptible to attacks from both conditions.
In this situation, it is less likely that one condition causes the other and more likely that both conditions may come from the same source.
One of the most consistent findings in modern research of RLS is that iron deficiency seems to be a strong environmental factor to its development. While this gets more complicated than just eating more iron (studies show that the problem may actually have to do with iron making its way to the right tissues, but this is inconclusive), iron deficiency has also been linked to migraines and headaches in general.
Sleep Deprivation and Insomnia
RLS frequently causes sleep deprivation and insomnia due to symptoms becoming more severe at night or during periods of rest. While sleep deprivation alone won’t necessarily trigger migraines in a healthy individual, it has been widely known to be a common trigger in those with a family history of migraines. In this way, RLS may amplify the frequency and severity of migraines.
Issues With Dopamine
Both migraines and RLS have been shown to involve dysfunction with proper dopaminergic functioning. Both disorders include irregularities with dopamine in the hypothalamus and some receptors in the basic nuclei (a specific set of cells very deep in the brain), leading to hypersensitivity in the receptors in these areas. This could directly or indirectly lead to the common symptoms in both disorders.
There are a few different ways to manage and treat both migraines and RLS.
While there are many medications out there to treat migraines and RLS separately, only a few may be effective at treating both simultaneously. These drugs include:
- Anticonvulsants, like gabapentin or pregabalin
- Opioids, such as tramadol
- Muscle relaxants
It is also entirely possible to take separate medications that treat each condition independently. These medications may include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories or anticonvulsants for migraines and dopamine agonists for RLS.
Botox injections have become a popular method for treating migraines in recent years, as they can help block the release of pain-causing chemicals in the head. However, Botox injections may also be effective in treating RLS. A study from the Yale School of Medicine concluded that patients who received Botox injections reported significant improvements in their RLS symptoms for up to six weeks afterward.
An anesthetic medication, ketamine has been found to be an effective treatment for migraines that do not respond well to other medications. In addition, ketamine has also shown promise in treating RLS, as well as other chronic pain conditions. This is especially true for patients who have been resistant to other treatment methods.
Get Help With The Invictus Clinic
While there is still more research to be done on the connection between migraines and RLS, these potential treatments offer hope for those who suffer from both conditions. If you suffer from either disorder, reach out to The Invictus Clinic to see if our ketamine treatments can help you.