Restless Leg Syndrome

Why do I get this creepy, crawling feeling in my legs at night that makes me get up and walk around to make it go away?

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder in which the person feels unpleasant sensations in the legs and an uncontrollable, and sometimes overwhelming urge to move to relieve the feeling. People with this problem often describe the sensations as pulling, itching, tingling, burning, aching, or electric shocks. The sensations range in severity from uncomfortable, to irritating, to painful.

Though leg movements are most commonly reported, RLS can affect other parts of the body as well. The arms can also be affected, with one side or both sides being involved. Typically 1 in 10 people experience RLS. It is more common in women than men, and onset can occur at any age. Children may also be affected by RLS. Many have moderate to severe symptoms, and experience difficulty sitting or lying still when tired or at rest.

People whose family members have RLS are also more likely to develop the disorder. Based on the most current research, this suggests that genetics — specifically, the faulty use, or lack of iron in the brain — appears to be the main cause of restless leg syndrome. The brain uses iron to make the chemical dopamine and to control other brain activities. Dopamine works in the parts of the brain that control movement.

Many conditions can affect how much iron is in the brain, or how it’s used. These conditions include:

  • Kidney failure
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Diabetes
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Pregnancy
  • Iron deficiency

Medications may also trigger RLS, including:

  • Anti-nausea medicines (used to treat upset stomach)
  • Antidepressants (used to treat depression)
  • Antipsychotics (used to treat certain mental-health disorders)
  • Cold and allergy medicines that contain antihistamines
  • Calcium channel blockers (used to treat heart problems and high blood pressure).
  • RLS symptoms usually get better, or may even go away if the medicine is stopped.
  • Certain substances, such as alcohol and tobacco, also can trigger or worsen RLS symptoms.

For those with mild to moderate symptoms, certain lifestyle changes and activities to reduce or eliminate symptoms are often effective, including:

  • Decreased use of caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco may provide some relief.
  • Supplements to correct deficiencies in iron, folate and magnesium.
  • Taking a hot bath, massaging the legs, or using a heating pad or ice pack can help relieve symptoms in some patients.

Some individuals have periods of remission in which symptoms decrease or disappear for days, weeks, or months, although symptoms usually eventually reappear. RLS is generally a life-long condition and symptoms may gradually worsen with age. Nevertheless, current therapies and medications can control the disorder, minimizing symptoms and increasing periods of restful sleep. Having an evaluation by a physician is the first step in evaluating and treating RLS, and your first step to a good nights sleep.