Have you ever woken up at night with the strong urge to move your legs or experienced a heaviness in your legs that has been relieved after you tried moving your legs? Well it might not seem a big deal at the instance but if you experience this often, you might be suffering from the restless legs syndrome (RESTLESS LEG SYNDROME), a disorder of the part of nervous system that leads to a severe itch to move or shake one’s legs with usually an unpleasant feeling. This uncomfortable sensation generally tends to occur in the evening or nighttime hours when you are sitting or lying down. While moving your legs might ease out the sensation, it is only a temporary solution. Also known as Willis-Ekbom diseases (WED), restless leg syndrome can initiate at any age and worsen as the person grows and even disrupt sleep and everyday activities. It is also considered as a sleep disorder by some and has been observed more in women than men.
The major symptom of restless leg syndrome, as the name suggests, is the strong need to move the legs accompanied with an uncomfortable sensation of restlessness in the legs. This sensation usually happens after taking rest or lying down or sitting over a long period of time.
The sensations are usually difficult to explain and tend to vary but usually happens on both sides of the body in the legs. In case of restless leg syndrome, these sensations usually happen within the limb and not in the skin. Some of these sensations are crawling, creeping, pulling, throbbing, aching, itching, electric, etc. The symptoms can fluctuate in their time of occurrence as well as frequency and severity.
There is no particular cause for restless leg syndrome. Some experts and researchers suspect that an imbalance of dopamine (the brain chemical responsible for sending messages to control muscle movement) can lead to restless leg syndrome.
- Long hours of travel or long movies can also cause this sensation.
- Restless leg syndrome can sometimes also be hereditary especially if it begins before the age of 40. Sites on the chromosomes where genes for restless leg syndrome maybe there have been identified.
- Hormonal changes or pregnancy can also sometimes enhance the signs of the syndrome.
- Women sometimes get restless leg syndrome for the first time during their pregnancy especially in the last trimester.
More often than not, restless leg syndrome is not linked with any other serious underlying medical issues. However, sometimes certain medical conditions such as the following can be accompanied by restless leg syndrome:
Peripheral neuropathy that damages the nerves in one’s hands or feet and can occur as a cause of some chronic disease like diabetes and alcoholism.
Iron deficiency, even without anemia, can worsen restless leg syndrome. Various reasons like a history of bleeding from stomach or bowels, or heavy menstrual periods can lead to iron deficiency.
Kidney failure that often comes with iron deficiency, usually with anemia can lead to changes in the body chemistry and further increase restless leg syndrome. When kidneys do not function properly, the iron stored in the blood can decrease.
Spinal cord lesions have also been observed to have a connection with restless leg syndrome. A spinal block, having had anesthesia to the spinal cord can increase the risk of developing restless leg syndrome/wed.
Although restless leg syndrome does not really lead to any major or serious health condition, its symptoms vary and can range from hardly bothering to severely incapacitating.
Many a times people with restless leg syndrome find it difficult to get appropriate sleep and hence affect their daily routine activities.
Insomnia can further accelerate excessive daytime drowsiness but restless leg syndrome is likely to interfere with napping.
In turn, severe restless leg syndrome can also cause marked impairment in life quality and can also result in depression.
Restless leg syndrome can also be associated with another common medical condition termed periodic limb movement of sleep and makes one’s legs twitch and kick, mostly all through the night while one is asleep.
When to see a doctor
A common worry with restless leg syndrome is often ignorance. Due to the not so severe outcomes or symptoms, it is often not taken as seriously or not even considered as any syndrome by many still. Mostly people never seek for medical advice for this condition but the frequent occurrence of restless leg syndrome can affect the quality of life severely in the longer run.
What can be done?
Restless leg syndrome can be take care of with simple self-care steps and lifestyle changes. More than just medications, improving one’s sleeping cycle and increasing the physical activities can help make the condition better. Mild movements such as stretching, jiggling, pacing or walking also help.
Dr. Anil. R, Consultant – Neurologist, Columbia Asia Hospital, Hebbal