Restless leg syndrome (RLS) affects about 10% of people in the U.S. It is a rough estimate since many people with this neurological condition are unaware that their irritating symptoms do have a name. It is often dismissed as a mild irritation, but severe cases can be quite disturbing and, sometimes, downright painful. Since the episodes mostly happen while the person is resting or sleeping, it affects sleep quality, and consequently, daytime functioning, including alertness during driving and operating heavy machinery.
It is rather tricky to diagnose restless leg syndrome correctly since the symptoms are not present all the time. It is nearly impossible to replicate them in a doctor’s clinic because they appear only when a person is resting or sleeping.
Although some people may have the characteristic sensations even when they rest during the day, they are usually milder and may not be apparent to others. However, they worsen towards the evening and become severe at night.
The diagnosis is based on the patient’s description of the symptoms, rather than any laboratory tests or imaging techniques. Self-diagnosis is really important since you can recognize the characteristic symptoms early enough and try some natural fixes. It can also help you overrule or get treated for other medical conditions with similar symptoms.
Check whether you have any of these characteristic symptoms of restless leg syndrome:
1. The uncomfortable feeling in the legs accompanied by an irresistible urge to flex or move them.
2. Temporary relief from the uneasy feeling when you move your legs.
3. The symptoms get worse when you are resting or sleeping.
4. The symptoms increase towards the evening.
5. You have difficulty falling asleep because of the symptoms or they awaken you from sleep.
Of these, the first four symptoms are essential for a clinical diagnosis of restless leg syndrome. If the fifth symptom is also present, you should get medical attention as soon as possible because chronic sleep disruption and insomnia can increase the risk of hypertension, cardiovascular disorders, and depression.
The strange feeling in the legs is often described as a creeping or pulling sensation, an itch that you cannot scratch, a dull but persistent ache, or even pain. Despite the name, restless leg syndrome is not exclusive to legs; it can affect hands, neck, and even the whole body. A large percentage of restless leg syndrome sufferers have another condition called periodic limb movements in sleep (PLMS), which can disrupt their sleep as well as disturb their sleep partners.
Who is at risk of Restless leg syndrome…
Gender – It affects both sexes, but women are more susceptible. Pregnancy increases the risk, but some women who have restless leg syndrome during pregnancy may experience a complete cure or long-term remission soon after delivery.
Age – restless leg syndrome is more prevalent in people older than 40 years, but in many of these cases, people would have had occasional symptoms in their 20s. Even very young children can have restless leg syndrome.
Lifestyle – Nicotine may precipitate restless leg syndrome symptoms or worsen them, probably because it inhibits sleep. Habitual alcohol use also has a similar effect. A sedentary lifestyle also is a risk factor.
Food/drugs – Foods containing caffeine and medications used for treating a number of psychological and physical disorders can cause restless leg syndrome or worsen the symptoms. The list includes sedatives, antidepressants, antihistamines taken for allergies, and opioids used for pain relief.
Other medical conditions – People who have diabetes, obesity, anemia, Parkinson’s disease, or peripheral neuropathy are more likely to have restless leg syndrome.
Genetics – The majority of people with restless leg syndrome have a genetic history. Several genes are found to carry this risk, and people with restless leg syndrome often have other family members or relatives suffering from it.
Treatment of Restless leg syndrome
Conventional medicine holds the view that restless leg syndrome has no cure, but that the symptoms can be managed with different drugs depending on their severity. You may be advised to take over-the-counter analgesics like acetaminophen or NSAIDs such as ibuprofen, ketoprofen or naproxen to ease the pain.
Muscle relaxants may be prescribed to reduce the sensations in the leg and sleeping pills to help you get some sleep. Narcotics are sometimes given if the pain is too severe. An anticonvulsant called gabapentin used for treating epilepsy is considered effective in reducing symptoms, so are Parkinson’s medications levodopa or pramipexole in some cases.
As we know all too well, most of these medications come with side effects. For instance, acetaminophen and NSAIDs are associated with liver damage and can cause intestinal bleeding and cardiovascular disorders, especially with long term use. Nausea, headache, edema, weight gain, breathing and swallowing difficulties and fatigue are some of the known side effects of gabapentin. Narcotics are addictive and precipitate withdrawal symptoms.
Since restless leg syndrome is a chronic condition, it is better to avoid drug treatments except in extremely severe cases. Instead, try some of these natural solutions many restless leg syndrome patients have found to be effective in managing their condition. In most cases, they may put it into remission, if not completely cure it.
Natural fixes you can try:
As we have seen, rest or sedentary pose, especially sitting down or lying on the bed for a long time, triggers restless leg syndrome. Not surprisingly, exercise seems to act as an antidote. Being active daily for 30 minutes to one hour is one of most practical solutions for preventing restless leg syndrome as well as reducing its symptoms
Stretching exercises are particularly helpful. Most restless leg syndrome patients report a significant reduction in symptoms, better sleep, and improvement in daytime function with as little as 30 minutes of daily exercise. Mild forms of exercise such as walking at a comfortable pace and light jogging are more effective than vigorous workouts. Also, it is better to avoid workouts towards the evening.
Chronic stress seems to increase the risk of restless leg syndrome as well as worsen the symptoms. That could be because of stress hormones keep the muscles in a constant state of tension. Meditation, deep breathing, and other relaxation techniques can reduce stress and improve restless leg syndrome.
3. Leg massages
Massaging the lower legs and other parts that have restless leg syndrome symptoms help the respective muscles relax. Self-massage works, but massage by another person is even more effective in reducing symptoms. Extra blood circulation to the muscles also might be contributing to this effect.
4. Hot and cold compression
A hot bath before bed can help anyone with insomnia, but for those who have restless leg syndrome, it has the additional benefit of relaxing the muscles and reducing the symptoms. Warm compresses also have a similar effect, but alternating heat and cold compresses are found to be even more helpful in reducing pain and discomfort. Try different methods and choose what works best for you.
5. Healthy diet
What you eat has a role in how you feel, and that’s true in the case of restless leg syndrome. A diet that provides sufficient amounts of protein, essential fats, vitamins, and minerals may remedy the nutritional deficiencies that cause restless leg syndrome.
Include green leafy vegetables, meat, beans, seeds, and fruits that contain quality protein, iron, calcium, magnesium and B-complex vitamins in the diet. Eat more of spinach, chard, pumpkin seeds, almonds, black beans, dark chocolate, avocado, bananas, and figs. Bone broth is excellent too. Flavor the food with unrefined sea salt and Himalayan pink salt.
Taking some probiotic foods like live-culture yogurt and kefir may help increase the population of beneficial gut bacteria. They help with the absorption of many nutrients from the food, besides fighting off many undesirable microbes. People with celiac disease have an increased risk of restless leg syndrome, so anyone with gluten intolerance or other food allergies should avoid the respective foods.
7. Vitamin and mineral supplements
Deficiency in certain minerals and vitamins is known to increase the risk of restless leg syndrome. If you cannot close the gap with dietary modifications, consider taking supplements, but get a doctor to prescribe them.
The link between anemia and restless leg syndrome had been observed by Dr. Karl-Axel Ekbom after whom the condition was originally called Willis-Ekbom disease. It is now known that dopamine deficiency in the substantia nigra of the brain, which controls neuromuscular movements, is a risk factor for restless leg syndrome as it is for Parkinson’s disease. Since Iron is essential for dopamine synthesis, it explains why people with anemia are prone to restless leg syndrome.
However, Iron supplementation should be done at a doctor’s recommendation and only after conducting a ferritin test.
Magnesium deficiency causes muscle twitches and tightening that can trigger or worsen restless leg syndrome. The right balance between this mineral and calcium is necessary because it is required to remove excess calcium from soft tissues and help them relax. Deficiency of magnesium can result in calcification of smooth muscles too.
These vitamins are essential for neurological health in general, and supplementation often helps reduce symptoms.
11. Vitamin D, C, and E
Deficiency of these vitamins is often observed in people with restless leg syndrome. In many cases, supplementation resolved the symptoms, but they are ideally prescribed according to specific needs. Overdosing, especially in the case of Vitamins D and E, may have dangerous side effects.
12. Sleep hygiene
Restless leg syndrome often make it difficult to fall asleep after you have been in bed for quite some time. You can avoid it by practicing proper sleep hygiene. It involves fixing a regular bedtime, toning down physically and mentally stimulating activities as the evening progresses, and having a practical bedtime ritual like reading or listening to soft music. You need to figure it out by trial and error method. Dedicate the bed and the bedroom to sleep, and rid them of all sleep-disrupting gadgets like alarm clocks and cell phones.
Treatment for other conditions
Sometimes, restless leg syndrome is a fallout of another medical condition. In such cases, getting the right treatment for that disorder can resolve the symptoms.
Avoid risk factors
Alcohol, smoking, caffeine, opioids, and prescription medications that cause the characteristic symptoms of restless leg syndrome should be avoided. Consult your physician to get alternatives for essential drugs.