Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is more than the occasional bouncing of the leg to pass the time that many people assume it is. It is an uncontrollable urge to move your legs, accompanied by a highly uncomfortable sensation. It includes aching legs, legs and calf muscles twitching.
To make matters worse, restless leg syndrome usually occurs at night, which means that there is significant trouble getting to and staying asleep. In fact, for this reason, because of its common occurrence surrounding sleep, some think of RLS as a sleep disorder. They also classified it as a movement disorder since those who have the health concern only obtain relief by moving their legs. Above all, however, it’s classified as neurological sensory disorder since RSL symptoms begin with the central nervous system.
RLS is more than just twitching legs. Once it manifests in your sleep, RLS can cause exhaustion and daytime sleepiness. It, in turn, can affect mood, concentration, attention and functionality on the job and in school. People affected by RLS report a 20 percent decrease in work productivity. Long-term untreated RLS can finally lead to mood swings and stress. Sleep deprivation is a crucial cause of chronic stress, and this alone can cause several health problems.
While the symptoms of RLS may be vast, the causes are less well known. A variety of factors cause RLS, such as pregnancy, nicotine and caffeine use, already existing sleep disorders, iron deficiency and so forth.
Restless Leg Syndrome Symptoms
- Limbs Throbbing
Throbbing is the first description that individuals affected by RLS would describe the constant, uncomfortable pain and urge to move the limbs. Worse than experiencing the throbbing that might happen after surgery or wound, RLS throbbing seems to happen within the limb, not merely on top of it or the surface of the skin. For this reason, this discomfort often leads to insomnia and the inability to sleep at night. Throbbing, like other symptoms, is more likely to occur at night. Though rarely, throbbing and other sensations can also occur in the arms. (x)
Crawling and creeping describes the itching. These symptoms are also worse at night, while individuals report a short time in the mornings as a symptom-free period. If other events and activities keep individuals awake at night, such as stress, schedule changes and so forth, symptoms are likely to worsen. Unfortunately, a simple scratch doesn’t alleviate the symptoms. It usually takes movement or stretching to stop these sensations. (x)
- Constant Desire to Move Legs
The constant need to move the legs is a defining symptom of RLS. This sensation usually occurs on both sides and can rarely affect the arms.
This desire is not easy to explain. It is difficult to describe the feeling unless you’ve had it, but the desire to move the legs and feet is ever-present, insistent, and impossible to ignore. Once the legs have moved, such as through walking, stretching, pacing or just shaking the legs in general, the sensation alleviates. (x)
- Other Symptoms
Restless Leg Syndrome has a long list of symptoms. Unfortunately, many individuals with RLS might never seek medical attention because they fear no one will take them seriously. Other symptoms may include an electric feeling in the legs, a pulling sensation, sleep loss, irritability and mood changes. Restless leg syndrome can have serious consequences that not everyone recognizes.
Loss of work productivity by up to 20 percent can negatively impact individuals’ careers and well-being. Significant loss of sleep can also affect an individual’s health and cause trouble driving, performing at school or work and lower the immune system. Needless to say, RLS is not something you should feel ashamed of. (x)
Long-Term Effects of Restless Leg Syndrome
- Periodic Limb Movements While Sleeping
Eighty percent of people with RLS also experience periodic limb movements of sleep. These are spasms of the limbs that occur every 15 to 40 seconds during sleep. While they may seem harmless, blood pressure and heart rate actually spike during these spasms as well. It puts an individual at risk of additional heart issues over time and negatively impacts their sleep.
- Daytime Sleepiness
Daytime sleepiness and other sleep issues can affect relationships and work. Those who have RLS report feeling frustrated and helpless, which can have a significant impact on their overall well-being, including stress and anxiety.
- Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
RLS increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. Because RLS robs individuals of quality sleep, other aspects of health are at risk as well. Chronic sleep deprivation causes the person to be at greater risk for long-term health issues, where one problem leads to another. For example, lack of sleep increases obesity, and obesity increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.
What Causes Restless Leg Syndrome?
There is no obvious cause of RLS. There are risk factors that need attention, and some — like pregnancy. Removing the risk factor will subside the RLS symptoms, but generally, it is not reversible once RLS starts.
Restless Leg Syndrome Risk Factors
- Iron Deficiency
Iron plays a vital role in the body, and there is a correlation between a decreased iron level at night and the nightly worsening of symptoms common with RLS. A study from 1950 showed that 25 percent of the subjects with RLS also had an iron deficiency. (x)
However, it is not enough to get a simple blood test to measure iron. A protein called ferritin is a good indicator of the ability to store iron in the system. Make sure you have your ferritin levels checked at regular intervals. Supplementation can help with this but do it carefully, as too much iron supplementation has negative health consequences. (x)
- Some Medications
Some medications can affect restless leg syndrome and exacerbate symptoms. These include anti-nausea drugs such as prochlorperazine or metoclopramide and some cold and allergy medicines that contain older antihistamines such as diphenhydramine. (x) Taking antidepressants can also trigger RLS or make it worse. (x)
- Alcohol Intake
While no studies address the effect of alcohol on RLS, there is anecdotal evidence that consumption of alcohol, particularly at night, causes a noticeable increase in symptom severity.
- Kidney Disease
It is common for those with chronic kidney disease to experience RLS, though the cause of this correlation is unknown.
- Hormonal Changes
The onset of restless leg syndrome in pregnancy may stem from the significant hormonal shifts experienced by the mother.
Restless Leg Syndrome in Pregnancy
Restless leg syndrome in pregnancy is quite common, with approximately 1 in 5 UK mothers-to-be reporting an onset of symptoms. Pregnancy is a prime candidate for triggering the beginning because it may stem from hormonal changes that trigger restless leg syndrome. Generally, restless leg syndrome in pregnancy sets in during the third trimester. If the RLS stems from pregnancy and the accompanying change in hormones, the symptoms will generally subside after giving birth. (x)
Restless Leg Syndrome Treatment
- Vitamin D
Vitamin D deficiency is a contributing risk factor linked to RLS, and supplementing with vitamin D can positively affect RLS. Research indicates that vitamin D supplements improve the severity of RLS symptoms and concludes that vitamin D deficiency connection to it. (x)
Supplementing too much vitamin D3 can result in hypercalcemia and bone loss. General side effects include nausea, weakness, weight loss, heartbeat irregularity, irritability, constipation and seizures.
If you are experiencing kidney problems, you should avoid supplementing with vitamin D3 altogether.
Especially as an essential oil, rosemary can have a significant positive impact and decrease RLS symptoms. Rosemary is a natural analgesic, antispasmodic, and has warming properties that make it ideal for muscle aches, pains and spasms. In addition, the warming and calming properties of rosemary make it suitable for RLS. Some recommend rosemary as a topical massage or in a hot bath. (x)
Do not use rosemary extract if you have an aspirin allergy or suffer from seizures. Additionally, pregnant and nursing women should not take rosemary extract.
Medical industry has used iron therapy since the 1950s to treat RLS. Studies show a strong relation between iron deficiency and the severity of RLS. Even just one dose per day for three months can quickly show improvement. Keep in mind that not all iron supplements are the same, and some work better than others. Taking iron can be tricky when an iron infusion is present. (x)
Over supplementing with iron also has severe health consequences. Discuss all supplements with your doctor before adding them to a new regimen.
When it comes to RLS, moderate exercise daily is excellent for relieving symptoms, but strenuous exercise before bedtime is not ideal. Gentle exercises such as yoga, cycling and swimming are perfect exercises for individuals with RLS. Several stretches, such as the calf stretch, front thigh stretches, and hip flexor stretch, can provide the movement needed for RLS while quieting the symptoms.
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Restless Leg Syndrome Medication
Medications and painkillers are an option. Unfortunately, the side effects of these medications include nausea, lightheadedness, fatigue and addiction. Other medication options include drugs that affect calcium channels and opioids. Opioids have surprisingly reduced symptoms of RLS. On the other hand, these medications can be highly addictive. Always discuss your individual situation with your doctor before taking any prescriptions or medications.
The Bottom Line
Restless leg syndrome is one of the most common and most commonly underestimated conditions. The public thought of RLS is that someone wants to bounce their leg annoyingly. However, the need and action are uncontrollable and painful. It damages sleep quality and affects many areas of life.
RLS symptoms often include throbbing, itching, aching, creeping, pulling and, most importantly, the uncontrollable desire to move one’s legs. Unfortunately, even with a condition so common, there is no known cause of RLS. There are risk factors that make it more likely to have RLS, such as pregnancy, iron deficiency and use of alcohol and caffeine, but no known cause. If you find yourself faced with RLS, iron supplements, vitamin D, rosemary, and regular moderate exercise can all be beneficial.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.