BRAIN AND NERVE CARE

What Is Restless Legs Syndrome?

By Michele C. Hollow  @michelechollow
 | 
May 17, 2017

If you have trouble sleeping because of pain and uncontrollable twitchiness at night, you might be suffering from restless legs syndrome. Here’s what it is.

Moira Acker thinks a lot about sleeping in separate beds. She loves her husband, but hates that he spends a good portion of the night kicking and moving about. It’s his legs, which he has no control over.

“He’s even kicked me a few times,” she said. “I know he doesn’t mean to, however, it keeps me from sleeping. He sometimes sleeps through it, but often wakes up. He’s tired, too.”

 

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What is restless legs syndrome?

Acker’s husband suffers from restless legs syndrome. Like its name, people with restless legs syndrome have trouble stopping their legs from moving. Some also have an overwhelming need to scratch their legs because of itchiness. Others with restless legs syndrome have complained that their legs feel like they are being pricked with needles or that tiny insects are crawling on them. Restless legs syndrome symptoms can happen during the day and often increase at night when one is at rest.

Between seven and eight percent of men, women, and children living in the U.S. suffer from some form of the ailment. The majority of people with restless legs syndrome are middle-aged or older, and getting diagnosed is hard because restless legs syndrome often occurs when a person is resting.

Not sure if you have restless legs syndrome? Do you have one or more of these symptoms?

  • You have an uncontrollable need to move your legs, arms, or body, and that movement is followed by itching or painful sensations.
  • Your symptoms become worse when you are lying down, sitting, or at the end of the day.
  • You feel better when you walk or stretch.
  • You have trouble sleeping because of leg movements.

Having one or more of these symptoms doesn’t guarantee that you have restless legs syndrome. It’s wise to talk to your doctor to get to find out.

What causes restless leg syndrome?

Doctors aren’t one hundred percent sure of what causes restless legs syndrome. Genetics can play a role because almost half of the people diagnosed with the disorder have a family member with it. It can be caused by an iron deficiency, Parkinson’s disease, kidney failure, diabetes, and peripheral neuropathy, a disease of the nerves in your feet.

Some medications, such as antipsychotic drugs, antidepressants, and cold and allergy drugs, can make your symptoms worse. Alcohol and lack of sleep can also trigger symptoms.

Restless legs syndrome natural treatment

According to the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation, your diet and lifestyle can be adjusted to relieve symptoms. Check with your physician to see if you have an iron deficiency. If so, your doctor may suggest that you take iron supplements or eat a diet that’s rich in iron. Think spinach and other leafy greens, raisins and dried fruit, beans, and seafood.

You may want to cut back on caffeine because it has been linked to increased restless legs syndrome. The same can be said of smoking, drinking alcohol, and eating sweets. Talk to your doctor about your diet.

Add exercise to your daily routine. Walking, stretching, cycling, swimming, and yoga can help. These workouts tend to alleviate leg pain. It’s recommended that you do your exercises early in the day or at least between three and four hours before you go to bed. The Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation found that exercise too close to bedtime can exacerbate the problem.

Medication for restless legs

If diet combined with exercise doesn’t control your restless legs syndrome, talk to your doctor about taking medication. Your doctor may prescribe drugs that increase dopamine in your brain or ones that relax your muscles.

Note that you might have to try a few medications before finding the one that will work for you. That’s why it’s important to talk to your doctor.

 

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Updated:

May 17, 2017

Reviewed By:

Janet O’Dell, RN