If you get that creepy, twitchy feeling in your legs at night, you may have restless legs syndrome (RLS). It makes you want to get up or jump up and down to relieve the feeling and can disturb sleep, as it often happens in the evening or at bedtime.
That’s what we’re going to look at in this article.
What is Restless Legs Syndrome?
It’s a sensation of having an internal itch or pins and needles in the legs (occasionally it can occur in the arms) and an urge to move the legs to relieve it.
It often happens in the evening or at bedtime, sometimes during the night, which may wake you from sleep, or affect the quality of your sleep. This can mean you wake feeling tired in the morning.
Symptoms may be mild and occasional, moderate or severe and happening daily or just occasionally.
It’s a common condition of the nervous system, also called Willis-Ekbom Disease.
What tests will the doctor do for restless legs?
While RLS isn’t usually medically serious in itself, if you find it is severe enough to consult your doctor, s/he will mainly make a diagnosis from the history you give.
You may also have some tests to check for any other underlying conditions (see below, in ‘What Causes Restless Legs Syndrome?’), discuss your lifestyle and check what meds you’re taking.
What is the treatment for Restless Legs?
Making lifestyle changes such as:
- stopping smoking,
- reducing sugar intake,
- losing weight
- taking more exercise
- reducing stress levels
- reducing caffeine and/or alcohol intake
can all help dramatically if your symptoms are mild to moderate. Your doctor will probably recommend this approach in the first instance, before trying medication.
If your doctor thinks that the meds you’re already taking may be making your restless legs worse, changing the dose or swapping it for another drug may help.
In more severe cases, dopaminergic drugs can be used to treat Restless Legs Syndrome. Brand names include Mirapex and Permax.
What causes Restless Legs?
Often there is no obvious cause for Restless Legs Syndrome, but it’s thought to have something to do with how the body processes dopamine. Dopamine is a nerve chemical that helps control muscle movement.
- It is associated with some long-term conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, Parkinson’s Disease, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis or an underactive thyroid.
- Iron deficiency anaemia can also be a cause of RLS.
- Pregnancy is also a trigger. Many women experience RLS in the last 3 months of pregnancy but for most the symptoms disappear within about a month of giving birth.
- Meds don’t generally cause restless legs, but they can make symptoms worse. These include:
- Some antipsychotics, antidepressants, lithium.
- Calcium channel blockers (used for treating high blood pressure).
- Some anti nausea drugs.
Who gets Restless Legs Syndrome?
About 10-15% of the population experience restless legs symptoms at some stage.
So it’s common and often goes away on its own, or with a few lifestyle changes.
What’s the outlook for people with Restless Legs?
Generally the condition isn’t serious but is frustrating.
Problems arise when it prevents you from getting to sleep or sleeping properly. You may be aware of your legs being restless (because the sensation wakes you up) or you may not, but it affects the quality of your sleep. If the latter is the case, then discuss it with your doctor. As we said above, lifestyle changes will help and dopaminergic drugs can be prescribed if necessary.