If you have experienced an almost irresistible urge to move your legs, or find yourself habitually jiggling your legs while you’re sitting down, you may be suffering from Restless Legs Syndrome.
The important question is: what is restless leg syndrome? How do you know if you have it?
You’ll find your answers here, along with everything we know about the symptoms and treatment options.
Restless Legs Syndrome: What You Need To Know
What Is Restless Legs Syndrome
Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is often referred to as Willis-Ekbom disease (WED). It can begin at any time—even in children—but often worsens with age.
RLS causes an overwhelming urge to move your legs, and often happens at night when we spend more time sitting or lying down. Jerking or jumping your legs, or moving around, usually eases the feeling temporarily.
How Is It Caused
Although scientists and researchers suspect there is a link between restless legs syndrome and a dopamine imbalance in the brain, there are no definite causes.
Some factors that might influence whether or not we get RLS include:
Age and Gender
The risk of developing RLS rises as we age, and is more common in women than in men.
The hormonal changes occurring during pregnancy can temporarily aggravate RLS symptoms and severity. If you develop RLS during pregnancy, it is likely to be in the third trimester. Fortunately, it is fairly common for symptoms to ease after you give birth.
Researchers have discovered that restless legs syndrome runs in families. This is most identifiable where RLS is developed before we turn 40, and studies have shown a chromosomal similarity between patients in this age group.
Although RLS isn’t linked to any major underlying medical issue, it tends to go hand in hand with other minor conditions. Some that have been identified are:
- Iron deficiency. Even a minor iron deficiency can aggravate RLS.
- Kidney failure. If you suffer from kidney failure, you are likely to have an iron deficiency, which can increase the risk of developing RLS.
- Spinal cord conditions. If you’ve had a spinal block or other anesthesia to the spinal cord, you are at increased risk of developing RLS. Lesions on the spinal cord have the same impact.
- Nerve damage. Chronic diseases—like alcoholism and diabetes—can cause damage to the nerves of your hands and feet. This can lead to an increased chance of developing RLS.
Common Symptoms of Restless Legs Syndrome
The major symptom of RLS is the one that gives it its name—restless legs. Patients generally describe unpleasant or frustrating feeling in their legs or feet. The sensation usually affects both legs.
If you notice a feeling of crawling, pulling, or throbbing in your lower limbs, you’re not alone. RLS sufferers also describe an ache and itchy feeling in the legs (as opposed to on the skin).
People affected by restless legs syndrome don’t describe the feeling as cramping or numbness—just as an overwhelming need to move their legs.
You may also notice other characteristics that tie in with this annoying feeling:
This symptom, called periodic limb movement of sleep, can cause you to twitch and kick your legs in your sleep.
Symptoms are most severe at night or after resting. You are more likely to experience this symptom after sitting or lying down for a long period of time—like at your desk, or in a car.
Symptoms can escalate and ease for a period of time, and return without warning.
Side effects of Restless Legs Syndrome
RLS isn’t known to lead to other medical conditions. For sufferers, though, it can cause sleep problems. Because the syndrome is most common at night, it can affect your ability to fall asleep, and wake you throughout the night.
Difficulty sleeping has been linked to impaired quality of life, depression, and decreased productivity.
Treating Restless Legs Syndrome
If you’re losing patience (or sleep) with what most of us call “jumpy legs” or “jumpy leg syndrome,” it’s important to explore your treatment options.
So what is good for restless leg syndrome?
There are several lifestyle changes you can make to manage your own symptoms, right now.
- Cut out caffeine. Quitting caffeine can reduce the level of stimulation on your nervous system. Anyone who drinks coffee or energy drinks knows the increased energy a caffeine fix gives you. This energy spike can aggravate your already jittery legs.
- Regular, moderately intense activity has many benefits. For RLS sufferers, it can improve your ability to fall asleep, and relieve muscle tightness.
- Get a massage. A quality massage can help ease muscle pains and tension.
- Try warm baths or heat packs. These also can help ease muscle tension and reduce the frustrating feelings in your limbs.
- Practice better sleep hygiene. Sleep deprivation has many negative effects, so it’s important to take an active role in improving your sleep. Ensure your sleeping environment is cool, dark, and quiet. Cut out electronics and devices 30 minutes before sleep, and try to establish a night routine.
If managing your lifestyle doesn’t improve your symptoms, it’s time to see your doctor or healthcare provider.
Patients have reported relief from RLS by treating an underlying iron deficiency. Iron supplements can be prescribed by your doctor, once they have confirmed your blood-iron levels.
If your RLS isn’t associated with low blood-iron, your doctor may move to other treatments. When it comes to traditional medicine, what is the best treatment for restless leg syndrome?
These could include:
- Dopamine-increasing medications. When dopamine levels in the brain are low, it can cause muscle spasms and involuntary motion.
- Drugs like codeine, Percocet, Vicodin, and OxyContin can help relieve severe RLS symptoms.
- Muscle relaxants. These work to help you get a better night’s sleep. Because they are sedatives, they should be restricted to night use, and are generally used as a last resort.
- Calcium blockers. If RLS stems from a magnesium deficiency, you may be prescribed magnesium supplements or medications that affect calcium channels.
If you are suffering from symptoms of restless legs syndrome, your first step is to see your doctor. In the meantime, you now have a clearer understanding of the syndrome, and some lifestyle advice that can help manage it. The key is to find a treatment plan that helps you, before your symptoms become difficult to manage and start to impact your quality of life.