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What is Restless Leg Syndrome?

Updated on July 7, 2015
Restless Leg Syndrome is so named because it typically affects the legs, but it can also affect the arms.
Restless Leg Syndrome is so named because it typically affects the legs, but it can also affect the arms. | Source

Willis – Ekbom Disease, better known as restless leg syndrome, has become increasingly more common among the population.

It is estimated that approximately 7 to 10 percent of the population is affected, and 2.7 percent of those with the disease have severe or daily symptoms. Women are more commonly affected than men.

Despite its name, restless leg syndrome (RLS) can also affect the arms and torso of the body. It is a neurological disorder that causes the irresistible urge to move the legs in response to a sensation that is very uncomfortable. Moving the leg temporarily provides relief from the very odd and uncomfortable sensation, which gets progressively more intense until the individual finally moves the leg. Unfortunately, the relief is short lived, and relaxing actually makes the symptoms worse.

In March 2011, a study was published in the journal Sleep that suggests there are fewer dopamine transporters (DATs) in the striatum of the brain of those people with RLS than those without the syndrome. Although these findings won’t help in diagnosing patients, nor do they give a definitive cause for the disease, but they may prove useful in treating patients with RLS.

Restless Leg Syndrome Symptoms

The sensation of restless leg syndrome varies widely among patients. Because of this the National Institute of Health has developed a set of criteria to help doctors diagnose patients with RLS.

The National Institute of Health states the criteria for RLS includes:

  • A need to move the limbs usually accompanied by an uncomfortable or painful sensation.
  • The uncomfortable sensation tends to improve with activity. Many patients find relief when moving the affected limb(s) and the relief continues as long as they are moving. In more severe RLS this relief of symptoms may not be complete or the symptoms may reappear when the patient tries to remain still.
  • Sensations and the need to move gets progressively worse the longer the patient remains still.
  • Symptoms are usually worse at night. Patients with mild or moderate RLS show a clear circadian rhythm to their symptoms, with an increase in sensory symptoms and restlessness in the evening and into the night, making sleep difficult.

In my own experience, the sensation is an uncontrollable urge to move my legs that continues to increase in severity the longer my legs are still. It comes on suddenly, and can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. There have been occasions where the symptoms have disrupted my sleep. The symptoms are not only painful, but also very frustrating and distracting.

Individuals with RLS typically also have myoclonic jerks when sleeping, which can cause sleep disruption. These myoclonic jerks (as well as RLS) are part of a sleep disorder known as periodic limb movement disorder or PLMD. Interestingly, approximately 80 – 90 percent of all individuals with RLS have periodic limb movement disorder.

Obesity can cause restless legs syndrome among other things.
Obesity can cause restless legs syndrome among other things. | Source

What Causes Restless Leg Syndrome?

Unfortunately, the exact cause of the condition is unknown in the majority of cases. There are a number of conditions that restless leg syndrome has been associated with including:

  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Nerve disease
  • Anemia (iron deficiency)
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney failure
  • Polyneuropathy
  • Pregnancy

One of the major conditions associated with RLS is pregnancy, which suggests that RLS is associated with circulation.

Patients with varicose veins also have a higher incidence of restless leg syndrome than those without them. Varicose veins are caused by poor venous circulation, and they are most commonly found in the legs; however, they can be found in the arms and other areas of the body as well.

Restless legs syndrome can also be inherited. An estimated 50 percent of those with RLS have family members who also have the syndrome.

Have you or someone you know been afflicted with Restless Legs Syndrome?

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Restless Leg Syndrome Treatments

Depending on the cause of RLS, there are a number of different treatments. If the condition is caused by an underlying problem such as anemia, diabetes or kidney failure, treating this condition often resolves the symptoms.

For those patients who do not have an underlying condition causing their symptoms, there are several medications that can help alleviate both the frequency and severity of the symptoms, many of which are used to treat other conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. These medications include:

  • Requip (ropinirole)
  • Mirapex (pramipexole)
  • Sinemet (carbi/levodopa)
  • Neurontin (gabapentin)
  • Klonopin (clonazepam)
  • Halcion (triazolam)
  • Lunesta (eszopiclone)
  • Ambien (zolpidem)
  • Rozerem (ramelteon)
  • Restoril (temazepam)
  • Sonata (zaleplon)

Opiates like Ultram (tramadol) can help alleviate painful symptoms.
Opiates like Ultram (tramadol) can help alleviate painful symptoms. | Source

Pain medications, specifically opioids such as Oxycontine (oxycodone), Ultram (tramadol) and Vicodin (hydrocodone) have been used to relieve the pain associated with RLS symptoms. Unfortunately, they do not decrease the frequency of the symptoms.

There are some medications that may worsen the symptoms of restless legs syndrome. Medications such as antidepressants and anti-emetics (anti-nausea) drugs have been known to increase the severity and frequency of symptoms and are best avoided if at all possible.

Alternative Treatments for Restless Legs Syndrome

For pregnant women, medication is typically not an option. If you are pregnant, or simply prefer natural methods for relieving symptoms, there are a few things you can try at home.

  • Baths and massages – the warm water of a bath can help the muscles of the legs (or arms) relax as can massaging the affected limbs.
  • Applying hot or cold packs – some patients have found the application of either heat or cold (or alternating the two) can relive the sensations in the limbs.
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers – ibuprofen or Tylenol can be helpful in treating painful symptoms.
  • Exerciseworking out increases endorphins in the brain, which are the body’s natural painkillers. Regular exercise can reduce the frequency and severity of symptoms; however, too much exercise may have the opposite effect.

A hatha yoga class
A hatha yoga class | Source
Tea and coffee can exacerbate RLS symptoms
Tea and coffee can exacerbate RLS symptoms | Source
Potassium, calcium and magnesium can be helpful in alleviating the frequency and severity of symptoms caused by restless legs syndrome
Potassium, calcium and magnesium can be helpful in alleviating the frequency and severity of symptoms caused by restless legs syndrome | Source
  • Meditation or Yoga – stress exacerbates most health problems, and we all know it causes a multitude of them. RLS is no different. Meditating or practicing Yoga may help alleviate stress in turn alleviating RLS symptoms.
  • Get a good night’s sleep – establish a sleep routine, and make sure you’re getting enough quality sleep. Keeping a sleep diary can help you monitor your sleeping patterns, and there’s definitely an app for that.
  • Avoid caffeine – or at least cut back on it. Some patients have reported improvement in their symptoms after drastically cutting back on their caffeine intake.
  • Avoid tobacco and alcohol – both of which can wreak havoc on your circulation among other things.
  • Make sure you’re getting all your vitamins – the majority of the population doesn’t get enough vitamins through their diet and supplementation is necessary. Vitamin C and vitamin E have been reported to help alleviate symptoms.

There are also several minerals that have been reported to help alleviate RLS symptoms. Magnesium, potassium, and calcium are all required for neural signaling to the muscles (among other things). A deficiency in one or more of these minerals may trigger RLS.

Coping with Willis - Ekbom Disease

Realizing you are not alone and that there are other people out there dealing with the same symptoms can go a long way to helping you cope with RLS. Join an online support group, and talk to others about your condition.

Don’t be afraid to seek help. Many patients avoid visiting their doctor for fear of having to explain a symptom that is inherently indescribable, but RLS has received quite a bit of attention by the medical community in recent years. Most doctors now accept RLS as a legitimate condition, and if they don’t, it’s time to find another one.

© Copyright 2013 - 2015 by Melissa "Daughter of Maat" Flagg ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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    • teamrn profile image

      teamrn 3 years ago from Chicago

      Lots of good info. out of the 81 known sleep disorders, RLS is #4. Mine was diagnosed during a sleep study for OSA, and I was prescribed Mirapex; before the side effects of Mirapex were known.

    • reneeschambre profile image

      Renee M Schambre 3 years ago from Ohio

      Another thoought, be sure to check your B vitamins! Deficiency in B's is important in Restless Legs! Thanks for the article!

    • profile image

      Dinky64 4 years ago

      I have 2 prolapsed discs...no nerve infringement ss per mri scans. I have now developed RLS symptoms...yet to be diagnosed by Gp...could they be connected?

      Have read a few notices of people already diagnosed with RLS wondering the same.

    • Daughter Of Maat profile image
      Author

      Melissa Flagg COA OSC 4 years ago from Rural Central Florida

      It may be related to the MS. I have read where RLS can be the result of the degeneration of the motor neurons, but more research needs to be done on the issue. It was a small study, and was definitely not conclusive.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 4 years ago from USA

      When I came down with H1N1 in 2009 (?), I developed movement in my legs and most especially my hands during sleep. The symptoms improved but never went away, especially my hands. I made repetitive movements as if I am typing. No joke. I have MS so I don't know whether it's associated.

    • Athlyn Green profile image

      Athlyn Green 4 years ago from West Kootenays

      This was very good information. RLS can also be part of Fibro.

    • Daughter Of Maat profile image
      Author

      Melissa Flagg COA OSC 4 years ago from Rural Central Florida

      Phoenix, I make a conscious effort to move my legs. If I try to fight the urge to move my legs, the sensation just keeps getting stronger. It's very uncomfortable and very difficult to describe. I have twitches in my arms and legs at times too, presumably because of the herniated disc in c5-c6. yay.... lol

    • Daughter Of Maat profile image
      Author

      Melissa Flagg COA OSC 4 years ago from Rural Central Florida

      Thanks dilipchandra12, indeed many people haven't heard of this disease, although it is becoming more commonplace. :D

    • Daughter Of Maat profile image
      Author

      Melissa Flagg COA OSC 4 years ago from Rural Central Florida

      Thanks Faith Reaper. I know what you mean, it really is a horrible sensation!! It makes it difficult for my husband to get any sleep when I have it!

    • profile image

      parwatisingari 4 years ago

      Restless leg is could also be seen transient physiologic in teenage growth spurt.-- I have had couple of patients like this.

      Sometimes there are hereditary conditions, usually these are accompanied by bruxism.

      This is a person observation there is also a hereditary tendency to alpha personality.

    • phoenix2327 profile image

      Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      So when you get RLS, do you mean your legs move involuntarily or do you make a conscious effort to move your legs. Before my first surgery, my right leg would start to feel, not painful, but uncomfortable, and then begin twitching uncontrollably. They harder I tried to stop it the worse it got. After the surgery, it eased up quite a bit. I still get the occasional twinge but nothing like it used to be. It may have been due to the problems I was having with the prolapsed discs in my neck.

    • dilipchandra12 profile image

      Dilip Chandra 4 years ago from India

      Thanks for the knowledge hub on Restless Leg Syndrome. It is interesting and very informative. I've never heard of this, thank you for such a good, informative and useful read!

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 4 years ago from southern USA

      My poor husband suffered with restless leg syndrome for a good while. At the moment, it seems under control. It was just terrible. He said it was like ants were inside his legs crawling up and down, and he could not help but to have to kick his legs. He would have to sleep in the other bedroom, as I would not get any sleep when he had his attacks. I feel for anyone who has this syndrome.

      Voted up ++ and sharing

      God bless, Faith Reaper

    • Daughter Of Maat profile image
      Author

      Melissa Flagg COA OSC 4 years ago from Rural Central Florida

      Thanks crissarose! I found it interesting also that it was associated with low iron levels, which explains why I had it when I was pregnant since I was anemic. I didn't know about the gluten allergy however. I'll have to read more about that and update this hub with the info I find. Thank you!!

    • Daughter Of Maat profile image
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      Melissa Flagg COA OSC 4 years ago from Rural Central Florida

      Thank you Phlecky! I remember when I was pregnant, I had it almost all the time. I couldn't rest my legs on my hubby's lap (he wanted to rub my feet) because I just couldn't keep them still. He even asked me "Can't you stop moving your legs?" I told him no, I couldn't!! It's really a horrible feeling. I read about it a few years after I had my daughter and I was relieved to know that it was associated with pregnancy. I still get it off an on, but nothing like when I was pregnant!

    • crissarose7 profile image

      crissarose7 4 years ago

      Very interesting article! So interesting because I was just reading an article about Restless Leg Syndrome today and how it is sometimes correlated with low iron levels and a gluten allergy which is also probably correlated with anemia and a bad diet. I suffered from RLS as well and every since I started yoga, iron pills, and a gluten free diet, it has gone away! Great topic!

    • Phelcky profile image

      Lilly 4 years ago from Denmark

      Very interesting article! I too deal with Restless Leg Syndrome. For many years I thought I was crazy and that nobody else had those symptoms. I was so relieved when I found out that it actually had a name.

      Thank you for bringing up this subject.