We notice some people are unintentionally moving their legs while sitting comfortably. It can be due to numerous causes, and restless legs syndrome is one of them. Some call Restless legs syndrome (RLS) the Willis-Ekbom disorder (WED).
What is restless legs syndrome (RLS)?
Restless legs syndrome is a neurological disorder in which a person has an uncomfortable sensation in the legs that accompanies an irresistible urge to move the legs. Moving the legs eases the unpleasant sensation for some moments. Typically, the patients feel restless in their legs in the evening or nighttime when they are comfortably sitting or trying to sleep.
Restless legs syndrome or Willis-Ekbom disorder can occur at any age, and the symptoms can become more serious as you age. In severe cases, RLS can affect sleep at night, causing daytime sleep and a lack of energy to perform daily activities.
What are the symptoms of restless legs syndrome?
The most common symptom is an uncontrollable urge to move the legs. The condition usually affects both legs simultaneously, and rarely, it can affect the arms. The following are the associated symptoms are:
- Uncomfortable sensation accompanied by an urge to move legs: Generally, patients may have an unpleasant feeling in the legs or feet after lying down or sitting for a long time, such as sitting for a movie, a long plane journey, or traveling far by car. Sometimes, people find it difficult to describe the sensation, but some may explain it as:
- Relaxation after movement: The patients find relief from this unpleasant restlessness in the legs after motion, such as walking, jiggling the legs, or stretching.
- Exacerbation of the symptoms: People with RLS experience worsening of their symptoms in the evening or while sleeping. The RLS traits also start to intensify with aging.
- Associated leg twitching: At least 80% of people with restless legs syndrome also develop periodic limb movement of sleep (PLMS) conditions. In this condition, patients jerk, kick or twitch their legs in sleep. The frequency of limb movement ranges and can occur as frequently as every 15-40 seconds. These movements may disturb your partner’s sleep as well.
- Sleep troubles: People with RLS may experience difficulty falling and maintaining sleep, which leads to daytime sleepiness and fatigue. Long-term sleeplessness can cause numerous physical and mental ailments.
What are the causes of restless legs syndrome?
The exact cause of RLS is still unknown. According to some researchers, the following reasons may contribute to the development of restless legs syndrome:
Heredity: RLS has a genetic predisposition. Numerous studies found that more than 40% of people with RLS have a family history.
- Disruption of dopamine pathway in the brain
- Females are more susceptible to RLS than males.
- Pregnancy or hormonal changes can temporarily trigger RLS symptoms.
Can accompany other medical conditions: Sometimes, people with RLS have other conditions, such as:
- Iron deficiency
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Spinal cord conditions: spinal block or development of spinal lesions after injury or trauma
- Kidney failure
- Parkinson’s disease
How can a doctor diagnose restless legs syndrome?
A thorough medical history and symptoms questionnaire can help to diagnose the condition. Your healthcare provider may suggest the following additional examinations:
- Physical examination
- Neurological assessment
- Blood test for iron levels
- Investigations of sleep quality
What are the treatment modalities for restless legs syndrome?
Restless legs syndrome isn’t related to any serious health ailments. Sometimes, correcting the underlying cause, such as iron deficiency, can improve the symptoms of restless legs syndrome.
The healthcare provider can suggest the following treatments to get relief from the condition:
Lifestyle modifications: Some changes in your daily life can help reduce the symptoms, such as:
- Limit your intake of caffeinated beverages
- Quit smoking and limit alcohol drinking
- Add some exercises to your daily schedule, such as walking, cycling, dancing, or swimming.
- Practice yoga or stretches regularly
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule and avoid watching screens before bedtime.
- Soak your feet in a hot water tub for a few minutes before bed.
- Massage your legs in the evening
- Avoid sitting for long hours. And if you have to travel a long journey, try to do it earlier in the day and take breaks in between.
Medications: Drugs help decrease the severity of the symptoms. Your healthcare provider may suggest the following medicines:
- Dopaminergic agents: These drugs increase dopamine levels in the brain. The FDA approved the following dopaminergic medications for moderate to severe RLS:
- Muscle relaxants and sleep drugs: These drugs don’t eliminate the symptoms but help you sleep better.
- Some people with RLS also benefit from calcium-channel blockers.
- Narcotics: Opioids reduce pain and unpleasant sensation and help you relax. These medicines are addicting. Therefore, take them under the supervision of your healthcare provider.
RLS can interfere with sleep and other daily activities. Correct diagnosis and prompt treatment can help reduce these problems and improve performance and quality of life.