Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a condition where you have the constant urge to move your legs, in particular when you are trying to sleep. While the cause is not known, it does appear that the nervous system is involved.
About 80 per cent of people with RLS also experience a condition called periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD). PLMD is characterised by involuntary leg twitching or sudden movements during sleep. If you have PLMD, no doubt you are very exhausted since the involuntary movements can occur every 10 to 60 seconds causing severely disrupted sleep.
The sensation while mainly in the legs can also occur in the arms. The sensation has been described as crawling, jerky, tingling, burning or aching.
Lying or sitting down can trigger the symptoms. This leads to difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. Lack of sleep can trigger other conditions such as anxiety, irritability, nervous tension, insomnia, arthritis or muscle cramps. Ultimately, this can blanket the real cause of these secondary conditions and cause a wrong diagnosis.
Symptoms tend to be better for movement and stretching. Symptoms may be worse at night.
The symptoms of RLS vary in severity in each person. Mild RLS occurs randomly, with only mild interruption of sleep or rest. In moderately severe cases, symptoms occur once or twice a week leading to noticeable interference with sleep and daytime energy. In severe cases of RLS, the symptoms occur more than twice a week and have a huge impact on sleep and life quality and impairment of daytime function.
Symptoms may begin at any stage of life but RLS is more common as we age.
Why does it happen?
The jury is still out on the cause for RLS, but the main theory is that it is caused by a malfunction of the dopamine (brain chemical) pathway – which sends messages to control muscle movement.
It is clear that there is a genetic tendency for the condition, and those with a direct hereditary link may start to suffer the condition at a younger age.
A link has also been made between the following conditions and the development of RLS
- Low iron levels or anaemia – iron supplementation can correct or ease symptoms in some people
- Kidney failure, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease
- Pregnancy especially in the last trimester. Symptoms usually disappear within four weeks after delivery
- Certain medications such as anti-nauseants, epileptic medication. Always speak with your doctor before stopping any medications
What natural therapies can help?
Iron – ensure levels are checked and supplementation commenced if required.
Magnesium may decrease the amount of movement, it is important for muscle contraction.
Calcium is essential for nerve transmission and muscle contraction.
B group vitamins – support the nervous system and are beneficial during times of stress.
Did you know?
- Learning what aggravates and improves your symptoms can help you live with RLS. Start a diary and record your activities, emotions etc in relation to the degree of your symptoms.
- If you attempt to stop the urge to move, you may find that your symptoms only get worse. Stretch regularly and if travelling, stop for a quick walk frequently.
- Warm baths with magnesium salts can relax your muscles.
- Stress can aggravate RLS – find a good masseuse and treat yourself to a monthly massage. Meditation or yoga can also help you to de-stress.
- Moderate, regular exercise may relieve symptoms of RLS but excessive exercise may make symptoms worse.
- Reduce or avoid caffeine, alcohol and tobacco. These substances also may aggravate or trigger symptoms of RLS.