Restless leg syndrome, sometimes known as Willis-Ekbom disease, is a relatively common condition of the nervous system, which causes an overwhelming, irresistible urge to move the legs. The urge is usually strongest in the evening or at night and can also cause a creeping sensation in the feet, calves and thighs.
Sufferers may also have symptoms in their arms, chest and face and the sensations can cover a huge range from mild to unbearable. Many people find they can relive the symptoms by moving or rubbing their legs together. Some people only experience symptoms occasionally, while others have them every day.
Around 80% of restless leg syndrome sufferers also have periodic limb movements in their sleep (PLMS). This causes legs to jerk or twitch uncontrollably in brief and repetitive movements that occur every 10-60 seconds. PLMS can be severe enough to wake the sufferer and can also occur when people are awake and resting.
In the vast majority of cases, there’s no obvious cause of restless leg syndrome although it can run in families. There is, however, some research that suggests that restless leg syndrome may be connected to how the body handles a chemical called dopamine. This is because dopamine is involved in controlling muscle movement. In some cases, known as secondary restless leg syndrome, the condition is caused by an underlying health condition such as kidney failure or iron deficiency anaemia. Finally, there is also a link between restless leg syndrome and pregnancy with around 1 in 5 pregnant women experiencing symptoms in the last three months of their pregnancy. Restless leg syndrome usually disappears once the woman has given birth in these cases.
Restless leg syndrome is extremely common, with 1 in 10 people affected at some point in their lives. Women are twice as likely to develop the condition as men and it’s more common in middle age.
For mild restless leg syndrome that isn’t connected to any underlying health condition may not require any active treatment but lifestyle changes can make a big difference. Firstly, it is key to adopt good sleep habits. Follow a regular bedtime ritual, sleep regular hours and make sure your mattress is comfortable and supportive. Avoid alcohol and caffeine late at night and exercise regularly during the day. During an episode, you can try various measures to relieve the symptoms. These include massaging your legs, taking a hot bath during the evening, applying a hot or cold compress to your leg muscles, walking, stretching, doing relaxation exercises such as yoga or tai chi or simply trying to distract your mind with other activities such as reading or watching television.
Those suffering from frequent episodes of restless leg syndrome may be recommended medication by their GPs. Dopamine agonists work by increasing dopamine levels, which can often be low in sufferers. If you experience pain you can also be prescribed a mild opiate-based painkiller, such as codeine or tramadol and, for those whose sleep is
disrupted by restless leg syndrome, a short-term course of medication may be recommended to help aid sleep.
Recent research has found that people with frequent or severe restless leg syndrome may be up to twice as likely to develop cardiovascular diseases. It’s thought that the rapid leg movements increase heart rate and blood pressure, which raises the risk of heart problems. This is why it’s so important to make sure that you’re getting a good night’s sleep and taking the appropriate steps to make this possible.