Restless legs syndrome is a common condition causing an uncomfortable sensation and an overwhelming urge to move the legs. As it is often worse in the evening or at night, it causes its many sufferers to experience disturbed sleep patterns resulting in fatigue, anxiety and depression.
Restless legs syndrome, RLS, or Willis-Ekbom disease, affects as many as 1 in 10 people in the UK at some point in their life and it is more common in women and in the over 50s. Many people with RLS never get proper treatment as it’s hard to explain and often dismissed as not being a real medical condition.
Those who haven’t experienced the distressing symptoms may not understand how severely they can affect the quality of your life.
What are the symptoms of restless legs syndrome?
Not only are the signs and symptoms different from person to person, they are difficult to describe. Common descriptions include a creepy crawly feeling, tingling, aching, prickling, itching and burning sensations in your legs and occasionally in your feet and arms. Sometimes the symptoms are painful but most often they are simply uncomfortable and disturbing.
How can I help ease my symptoms?
- Avoid triggers
There’s a lot you can do by making lifestyle changes to avoid the triggers which are known to affect the condition:
- Manage stress as symptoms get worse if you are anxious. Try relaxation techniques such as meditation and deep breathing.
- Cut back on your alcohol intake. Alcohol in the evening will disrupt your sleep and worsen your symptoms.
- Stop smoking. Nicotine is a stimulant that impairs blood flow to muscles and can make your symptoms worse.
- Monitor your caffeine intake. For some people caffeine may actually be beneficial but many find it triggers their symptoms so experiment to find how it affects you.
- Take it easy. Avoid strenuous exercise close to your bedtime.
- Check your medicine cabinet. Many common medications can trigger your symptoms. These include over the counter sleeping pills, cold and allergy medications containing antihistamines, anti-nausea medications, calcium channel blockers, antidepressants and antipsychotics.
- Get checked for iron and vitamin deficiencies. A number of vitamins and minerals have been shown to be beneficial for sufferers and these are iron, magnesium, vitamin D and folate. A deficiency in these can trigger symptoms of RLS.
2. Get daily exercise
Daily activity can significantly improve your symptoms. You should include aerobic exercise and lower body resistance training. Choose activities you enjoy but avoid exercising close to bedtime. Simple stretches can also stop your symptoms from developing. Yoga and tai chi also help as they can relieve stress and encourage better sleep patterns. Online classes can help guide you even if you are a beginner.
3. Improve your sleep
The symptoms of RLS can make it hard to get to sleep. In turn, this then makes you feel terrible and vulnerable to stress. A vicious cycle occurs as stress and fatigue can then worsen RLS. So try these remedies to improve your sleep:
- Stick to a regular sleep time schedule even at weekends to support your body’s natural sleep rhythms.
- Optimise your bedroom for sleep by making sure it is cool, dark and quiet.
- Wind down with a relaxing bedtime routine.
- Take a hot bath, listen to calming music and curl up with a book.
- Power down electronics to prevent the blue light stimulating your brain.
- Try sleeping with a thin pillow between your legs. This may prevent the nerves in your legs from compressing.
4. What to do during an episode of RLS
Sometimes, despite your best self help efforts, your symptoms will flare up. Try some of the following to help relieve your symptoms:
- Get up and walk around. Fighting the urge to move can make the feelings worse.
- Do something which distracts your mind such as reading or watching TV.
- Apply a hot or cold compress to your legs.
- Massage your legs
- Try simple calf stretches or ankle rotation
- Try wearing compression socks or stockings but ensure that they aren’t too tight.
What causes restless legs syndrome?
The cause of RLS is usually unknown. Experts suspect that how the body uses the chemical dopamine may play a role. Dopamine controls muscle activity and movement. Its level is known to tail off towards the end of the day. This may explain why symptoms often peak in the evening.
Genetics also play a role as about half of the people with RLS have family members affected by it. Many medical conditions are associated with RLS. These include iron deficiency, diabetes, kidney disease, Parkinson’s disease and also pregnancy.
How is restless legs syndrome treated?
There are a number of non-pharmaceutical treatments that have shown promise and these include:
- TENS therapy. This is a portable, inexpensive device which can be purchased without a prescription and works by stimulating the nerves.
- Positional release manipulation (PRM). This is an osteopathic exercise technique which involves holding different parts of the body in a position that reduces feelings of discomfort and pain
- Alternative therapies such as acupuncture, massage, hypnotherapy and reflexology may help.
If lifestyle changes and other treatments haven’t helped, or you feel concerned about the effect your symptoms are having on your life, you may benefit from medication. But you should always be aware that drugs often come with side effects. Therefore you need to talk to your doctor to weigh up the benefits with the risks.
Drugs used to treat restless legs syndrome in the UK include:
- Levodopa, which is a dopamine boosting drug and is also used to treat Parkinson’s disease, can be prescribed.
- Dopamine agonists such as ropinirole, pramipexole and rotigotine are often recommended for people with frequent symptoms.
- Painkillers and sleep medication may also be prescribed.
As well as treatments, experts say there is an urgent need for better awareness. The charity Restless Legs Syndrome UK says that many people live with the condition for 10 to 20 years before it is correctly diagnosed. Speak to other people who suffer from the condition, try to join a support group and share your experiences to help ease your symptoms.
To read our earlier article about the problems caused by a deficiency in magnesium and how it can help restless legs syndrome, please click on the link.
If you would like more information from RLS UK, the charity set up to help sufferers of restless legs syndrome, please click on the link.
Finally, if you would like regular updates on over 50s health issues, please follow us on Facebook or sign up to our Newsletter The Best of Friends.