Are Sleep Apnea and Restless Legs Syndrome Related?

Yes, research has found a relation between sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome.

Do you ever struggle to get a good night’s sleep due to restlessness, snoring, or repeated waking? Many people think these are unrelated issues, but they could in fact be related.

Sleep-related problems can take a toll on our lives, causing us to feel fatigued and irritable during the day. Two of the most common sleep-related disorders are sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome (RLS). Both of these conditions lead to disrupted sleep patterns that can negatively affect daily functioning.

Although these two sleeping conditions may be different in many ways, research indicates that there is an overlap between the two. In this article we will explore the link between sleep apnea and RLS by discussing their symptoms, causes, risk factors, and possible treatments.

What is sleep apnea and RLS?

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a common sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep. It occurs when the airway becomes blocked due to tissue collapse or obstruction from the tongue or other tissues in the throat. As a result, oxygen levels drop and carbon dioxide levels rise, causing snoring and daytime sleepiness. Other symptoms can include morning headaches, difficulty concentrating, and irritability.

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder that causes an uncomfortable sensation in the legs associated with an irresistible urge to move them. This sensation usually occurs when one is lying down or sitting for long periods of time and can lead to involuntary movements during sleep, resulting in disrupted sleep patterns and feelings of fatigue during the day. The exact cause of RLS is not known, but it is thought to be related to a dopamine imbalance in the brain.

Are sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome related?

Research has shown that there is an overlap between sleep apnea and RLS. Studies have found that up to 8.3%% of people with OSA also have RLS, while only 2.5% of people without sleep apnea suffer from RLS. Additionally, both conditions share some common risk factors such as age, gender, lifestyle, and certain medical conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

It is believed that OSA can lead to RLS due to repeated arousals during the night. This can cause sleep deprivation which can eventually result in an imbalance of dopamine in the brain, leading to RLS. Additionally, it is thought that the periodic limb movements associated with RLS can lead to further disruption of sleep in people with OSA.

What negatively impacts OSA and RLS?

There are many factors that can negatively impact OSA and RLS.

  • Poor sleep hygiene – such as not getting enough sleep or going to bed at different times each night, can lead to further disruption of sleep.
  • Caffeine and alcohol – consumption before bed can interfere with quality of sleep. Too much caffeine can make you feel anxious, jittery, and mess with how well you sleep over all. Alcohol is the opposite, and can cause your throat muscles to relax too much causing an obstruction and heavy snoring.
  • Stress or anxiety – can worsen symptoms of both conditions.
  • Medical conditions – like diabetes, heart disease, and anemia can increase the risk for both OSA and RLS.
  • Medications – can worsen RLS, such as certain antidepressants and antipsychotics. Some medications used to treat OSA, such as benzodiazepines, may also lead to worsening of RLS symptoms.

How is sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome treated?

The treatment for both conditions usually involves lifestyle changes such as avoiding caffeine or alcohol close to bedtime, having regular exercise and avoiding any activities that may affect quality of sleep.

For those suffering from OSA or OSA and RLS, a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine can be used to keep the airway open while sleeping. A study found that half the patients who suffered from both conditions who underwent CPAP treatment were able to reduce their medication treatment for RLS.

For those with only RLS, dopaminergic agents such as pramipexole or ropinirole may be prescribed to help reduce symptoms. In addition, physical activity , massage, and stretching can help reduce the urge to move the legs during sleep.


There is a relation between sleep apnea and RLS. More research is required to determine the exact cause(s) for their link. Though, it is evident more people with OSA suffer from RLS compared to those who do not have OSA. Both of these disorders can lead to disrupted sleep patterns and feelings of fatigue during the day. If you are suffering from either condition, it is important to talk to your doctor about possible treatments.

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