What is Restless Legs Syndrome?

Restless legs syndrome (RLS), also called Willis-Ekbom Disease, is characterized by an uncontrollable desire to move your legs.

Typically, the desire stems from feeling abnormal sensations in your legs. The sensations may be painful or annoying.

As a reaction to those sensations, you may start walking around or jerking your legs to get the discomfort to stop. You can experience RLS symptoms during the day, but it is more common in the evening when you sit in a chair or go to bed. When it occurs at night, it impedes your ability to sleep.

Restless legs syndrome is a condition you can develop at any point. Once you have it, your symptoms may worsen as time passes or persist until whatever is triggering them stops. Therefore, finding ways to reduce your symptoms is essential. There is currently no known cure for RLS, but you can use known methods to treat its most prevalent symptoms. Below is more information about RLS, the impact it can have on your life and how to control it.

Symptoms of Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome causes direct and indirect symptoms. Leg discomfort is the primary direct symptom. You may experience RLS discomfort most often when sitting or lying down, and it can be associated with staying in the same position too long. For example, RLS flare ups may occur on long car rides or airline travel.

However, there is no minimum amount of time you must sit or lie down before symptoms occur. The uncomfortable leg sensations associated with RLS may take many forms, including:

  • Throbbing or aching.
  • Itchiness or burning.
  • Tugging or pulling.
  • Crawling or creeping.

The uncomfortable feelings associated with RLS may not only occur in your legs. You may also experience them in your feet or arms. The pain or discomfort of RLS is characterized by its relationship to movement. If you move, the feeling subsides. As soon as you stop, it may return.

However, the exact length of an RLS attack is unpredictable. It may last for a few minutes or more than an hour. You may also experience frequent bouts of RLS or long periods when you have no symptoms.

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The most prevalent indirect symptom of RLS is lack of sleep. You may find it difficult to sleep because of the pain or twitching in your legs. Moving while attempting to relieve the pain may also prevent your spouse from sleeping. Lack of sleep may cause:

  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Confusion.
  • Drowsiness during the day.
  • Mood swings, including onset of depression or anxiety.

Causes of Restless Legs Syndrome

The causes of restless legs syndrome are not completely known. However, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, some forms of RLS can be passed on genetically. If RLS occurs in young to mid-adulthood, experts say it is probably genetic. If you develop it when you are 40 years of age or older, it probably has another cause.

Iron may also play a role in development of RLS. A study conducted at Johns Hopkins University in 2007 showed iron treatment relieves RLS symptoms in some cases. If you suspect you have an iron deficiency, there are supplement pills available you can take to reverse it. Signs of an iron deficiency include anemia and dizziness. You may be more likely to develop an iron deficiency if you donate blood or have a bleeding disorder.

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Another theory supported by scientific research indicates RLS may occur because your brain does not process dopamine properly. The basal ganglia is the part of your brain responsible for movement control. Dopamine is a chemical it uses to trigger movement. When improper signal processing occurs due to a dopamine imbalance, it may cause the spasms of RLS.

Conditions Associated With RLS Development

A temporary medical condition sometimes associated with RLS is pregnancy. When you are pregnant, hormone levels in your body change. If your RLS occurs during pregnancy, you can typically expect quick recovery. Onset of RLS is most likely during your third trimester and subsides soon after the baby is born. This is because your hormone levels are likely to return to normal when the pregnancy is over. There are also several more permanent medical conditions that can cause you to develop RLS. Among them are:

  • Certain spinal cord injuries.
  • Kidney failure.
  • Nerve damage in your hands or feet caused by alcoholism, diabetes or other medical conditions. (Such damage is known as peripheral neuropathy.)

Restless legs syndrome is also directly associated with periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD). The difference between RLS and PLMD is that PLMD occurs while you are sleeping, not as a conscious response to pain or discomfort. If you have RLS, you have an approximately 80 percent chance of developing PLMD, causing your movements to continue while you sleep. However, having PLMD does not make you predisposed to developing RLS.

Restless Legs Syndrome Diagnosis and Treatment

Restless legs syndrome is easy to diagnose, but not in a traditional sense. There is no specific test your doctor can give you to diagnose it. Instead, he or she must make the diagnosis using information you provided. You must exhibit four key symptoms not linked to another physical or psychological disorder to get an RLS diagnosis. They are:

  • Overwhelming desire to move your legs, usually due to pain or discomfort.
  • Worsening of symptoms while sedentary.
  • Most symptoms occurring at night.
  • Immediate relief of symptoms when you move.

If you receive an RLS diagnosis, your doctor may recommend medication to treat your symptoms. Medications to regulate dopamine levels in your body can be beneficial. Medications like benzodiazepines may help you rest while coping with RLS symptoms. The FDA has also approved anti-seizure drugs your doctor may prescribe for RLS treatment. A final layer of treatment is prescription pain medication. Your doctor can prescribe pain medication if he or she thinks your symptoms are severe or other medications are ineffective.

Making small changes to your lifestyle may relieve your RLS symptoms. For example, taking hot baths can relax your muscles. Experts also recommend exercising because movement relieves symptoms. Additionally, limiting your intake of alcohol and tobacco may minimize your symptoms.

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