What is Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)?
Restless leg syndrome is a condition in which your legs experience an unpleasant sensation causing an irresistible urge to move them – often during sleep or when trying to fall asleep or when at rest, either lying or sitting down. By moving the legs, the uncomfortable sensation eases and goes away temporarily. Restless leg syndrome may also occur in the arms. This condition can disrupt sleep routines, most frequently during the evening or early part of the night, making it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Usually when symptoms of RLS worsen at night, it leads to insomnia. Because people with RLS struggle to get enough sleep as a result of persistent leg movements, they often experience daytime drowsiness. Consequently, RLS can affect your concentration, ability to travel, performance at work, interaction with family and friends, daily and social activities. It can also affect your mood, lead to mood swings and bring about depression.
Restless leg syndrome occurs more frequently in women, especially during the last months of pregnancy. It can, however affect both men and women. People with RLS are generally diagnosed in middle age, but there are often cases with symptoms of RLS beginning before age 20. This condition also tends to run in families.
Types of RLS
There are two types of RLS, primary RLS and secondary RLS.
Primary RLS is also referred to as idiopathic RLS. With primary RLS, the cause is unknown and once it starts, it becomes a lifelong condition. Over time, symptoms tend to get worse and occur more frequently – particularly, if symptoms began in childhood or early in adult life. In mild cases of RLS, when you are still or awake for a long time like on a lengthy airplane trip, symptoms may last for a limited period or there may be long periods of time without symptoms.
Secondary RLS is caused by an underlying condition or disease, or from taking certain medications. In most cases, symptoms disappear when the condition or disease is controlled or the medication is stopped.
Most people suffering from RLS also develop a condition called periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD). PLMD is a condition in which a person experiences involuntary, rhythmic limb movements such as jerking and twitching, while awake or asleep. While RLS disturbs sleep by delaying sleep, PLMD causes repeated awakenings that disturb or reduce sleep. People with PLMD are sometimes not even aware of their symptoms until a bed partner brings it to their attention.
Diagnosing Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)
The diagnosis of RLS depends largely on the description of your symptoms. Your doctor will take a complete medical history as well as perform a thorough physical examination. During the physical examination, your doctor will identify any underlying condition that may cause RLS and also be able to rule out other disorders.
Special attention will be given to the nerves in your spinal cord, legs and arms and the blood flow in your legs and arms. In addition, blood tests may be performed to check for underlying conditions such as iron deficiency, diabetes, kidney disease, vitamin or mineral deficiencies that may cause RLS.
The most common symptoms of RLS include:
- Unpleasant, irritating sensation in the legs. Sensations are often described as tingling, pulling, crawling or creeping and may be felt in the calf area, upper leg, feet, arms or hands
- Irresistible urge to move legs or arms when sitting or lying down
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep because of the unpleasant sensations in legs or arms
- Daytime sleepiness as a result of a lack of peaceful sleep due to repeated limb movements
- Very often, people ignore the symptoms of RLS and dismiss them as muscle aches or restlessness. For this reason, RLS is frequently misdiagnosed and left untreated, resulting in insomnia, daytime sleepiness and restlessness
What Causes Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)?
In most cases of restless leg syndrome, no cause can be found. Primary RLS refers to this condition when no cause can be found. However, studies have shown that primary restless leg syndrome tends to run in families, which may suggest that there may be a genetic link that increases the chance of developing the condition.
Secondary RLS is RLS that is caused by an underlying condition or as a side effect from certain medications.
Some of the conditions and diseases that are associated with RLS include:
Help for Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)
Because there is no cure for RLS, the primary aim of treatment is to relieve symptoms, increase the amount and quality of sleep, and treat or correct any underlying condition that may cause RLS. Some drugs and medications that are associated with RLS include caffeine, alcohol, antihistamine blockers, anti-seizure medicines, anti-nausea medicines, and certain antidepressants.
If symptoms are mild, implementing a few lifestyle changes such as eliminating caffeine, stopping smoking, getting better sleep and more exercise may be quite beneficial. In more severe cases where RLS interferes with sleep or daily activities, certain medications are effective. Other treatment options that may be considered include electric nerve stimulation, oral magnesium supplementation, acupuncture, warm or cold baths.
For centuries, natural and holistic approaches have provided long-term relief for restless leg syndrome sufferers. Herbal and homeopathic remedies contain a combination of ingredients that promotes calm, rested limbs during sleep. A well known herb, Astragalus membranaceous, has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine, and balances and improves the functioning of all the body’s organ systems through its adaptogenic and tonic properties. It also boosts circulation and assists absorption of iron from food.
Ruscus acluteatus, also known as Butcher’s Broom improves poor circulation and relieves the pain and discomfort associated with restless leg syndrome. It is also useful in treatment of constipation and water retention, circulatory disorders including hemorrhoids and varicose veins and as a bladder and kidney tonic. In addition, Aesculus hippocastum (Horse Chestnut) helps promote healthy blood circulation throughout the body, including the legs and can relieve Periodic Limb Movement and RLS by keeping the blood flowing smoothly even during and sleep and rest.
More Information for Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)
Self-help tips for restless leg syndrome
Although restless leg syndrome is a life-long condition, there are many coping strategies that you can develop.
- Follow a moderate exercise program which includes walking or jogging, but remember not to overdo it or exercise late during the day
- Stretch your legs, bend your knee and rotate your ankles during and at the end of the day
- Massage your legs to help you relax and soothe restless sensations
- Wear compression stockings, tight pantyhose or wrap legs in ace bandages to relieve symptoms
- Increase your intake of iron supplements if your iron levels are low
- Practice relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga or deep breathing
- Reduce caffeine, alcohol and tobacco intake
- Keep a sleep diary to monitor the effects of medication and strategies of RLS
- Soak feet in hot water or apply a heating pad or cold compress to affected area
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule by going to bed at the same time every night and every morning
- Lie on your side with a pillow between your knees to initiate sleep
- Join a support group where you can share information with others who are also suffering from RLS