It’s 3 a.m. and you’ve just woken up again with an uncontrollable urge to move your legs. There’s a bubbling, crawling feeling in your calves and the whole length of your legs are aching. If this sounds familiar, you might be suffering from Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS).
RLS is a debilitating condition that is more common than many people think. Studies show that up to 15% of adults(1) will experience restless leg syndrome at some time in their lives. Restless legs can afflict both sexes, but the condition is more common in women, with 19% of women developing RLS symptoms when they are pregnant. Most people who are severely affected by RLS are middle-aged or older.
There is no specific diagnosis criteria for Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS), with doctors relying on your symptoms and medical history. It may have no known cause, or be a known symptom of another underlying medical condition. Some common medical conditions associated with RLS are:
Studies show that RLS may be associated with low magnesium levels in the body. Magnesium encourages sleep and relaxes muscles. Insufficient magnesium can cause muscle spasms and twitches. Both anecdotal evidence and scientific studies have shown that magnesium supplements can help with RLS.
Our brains use the chemical dopamine to produce smooth, purposeful muscle activity. Problems with dopamine levels in the brain can cause the unpleasant sensations associated with RLS such as burning, itching and the uncontrollable need to move the legs.
Evidence (2) shows that low levels of iron in the brain could be responsible for RLS in some circumstances. Unfortunately, research suggests that taking iron supplements is not the answer in this case because the issue is the uptake of the iron that is already present in the blood and not a lack of iron.
Varicose veins or venous reflux
RLS is strongly associated with varicose veins, the dark blue or purple, lumpy and swollen veins, most often found in the legs. Varicose veins develop when tiny valves in the veins get damaged. A damaged vein valve can’t pump blood smoothly, causing it to pool or even flow in the wrong direction. This causes the condition we know as varicose veins.
Addressing underlying venous reflux or varicose veins can help many patients find relief from RLS. A recent study (3) found that 98% of patients with RSL experienced relief from their symptoms after having their varicose veins treated, and 80% had long-term relief.
Coping with RLS and easing symptoms
• Avoid or limit alcohol, caffeine and nicotine for at least several hours before sleep.
• Treat your varicose veins to obtain symptom relief.
• Ensure you get regular exercise.
• Do a range of leg stretches at least twice a day.
• Have regular leg massages.
• Avoid eating a heavy meal close to your sleep time.
• Maintain a regular sleep schedule.
• Avoid daytime naps.
• Practice relaxation techniques, such as meditation or progressive muscle relaxation, to help reduce RLS symptoms.
Although RLS does not cause serious health problems in itself, it can have a serious negative impact on your quality of life. Repeated sleep interruptions can lead to severe fatigue, low mood and depression.
Although there are drugs out there that may help manage RSL, medications do not provide a cure, and they also carry their own side effects and risks. Thankfully there are many non-pharmaceutical options that can help you relieve your symptoms:
1: Best Practice Journal, 2012; BPJ: 49
2: Connor JR, Boyer PJ, Menzies SL, Dellinger B, Allen RP, Ondo WG, Earley CJ. “Neuropathological Examination Suggests Impaired Brain Iron Acquisition in Restless Legs Syndrome.” Neurology, August 12, 2003, Vol. 61, No. 3, pp. 304-309.
3: Dermatol Surg. 1995 Apr;21(4):328-32.