Restless Leg Syndrome is largely what it sounds like – having restless legs at night or when sitting still. However, while it may sound simple, Restless Leg Syndrome should not be dismissed lightly. Restless Leg Syndrome, when severe, may cause discomfort, distress, fatigue, and even depression.
Other Names for Restless Leg Syndrome
Restless Leg Syndrome is sometimes known as Restless Legs Syndrome, RLS, Willis-Ekbom disease, or RLS/WED. These names all refer to the same neurological disorder.
RLS vs. PLMS
RLS symptoms should not be confused with the closely related PLMS or periodic limb movement of sleep. PLMS is a common sleep condition that appears as involuntary movement of arms or legs during sleep. Usually, people with PLMS are unaware that they have the condition. It may only be diagnosed if a partner reports that it disturbs their sleep.
People with PLMS will regularly kick, jerk, flex, or twitch their limbs while they sleep. These movements usually happen every 10 to 60 seconds and can be subtle or drastic. PLMS becomes more common with old age – about 40% of people aged 65 or older may have PLMS.
About 80% of people with RLS will be diagnosed with PLMS as well. While they both manifest as limb movements during sleep, they are not the same condition.
Restless Leg Syndrome Symptoms
Unlike PLMS, which is involuntary, RLS is characterized by having an intense urge to move ones’ legs. It may manifest as a creeping or crawling sensation, itching, pulling, tugging, throbbing, burning, gnawing, pins and needles, or cramping. It may be as unspecific as having aching legs when lying down, but it should not be confused with having regular muscle cramps or experiencing “growing pains.”
This urge to move your legs with RLS will usually arise during periods of inactivity. It’s a disorder that isn’t confined to sleep, although bedtime is often a trigger, with its long quiet hours. People with RLS may also experience similar sensations while at a desk or in transit.
What Causes Restless Legs?
When it comes to RLS, restless, meaning “unable to relax,” simply doesn’t do the condition justice. Restless Leg Syndrome is very different from having jittery leg movements, the kind we might sometimes experience after drinking too much caffeine or during an anxious situation. For this reason, some RLS advocates prefer to have the condition known as Willis-Ekbom Disease, after the physicians who first documented it, to underscore its severity.
What Causes Restless Leg Syndrome?
RLS is most often genetic. Studies have shown that 92% of people diagnosed with RLS have a first-degree relative who also shares the disorder. It also currently affects only about 3 to 5% of the adult population and is twice as commonly seen in women as it is in men. While RLS can occur at any point, it is thought to worsen with age.
What Triggers Restless Leg Syndrome?
RLS is currently understood as a hereditary neurological condition caused by differences in how the brain processes dopamine. However, certain variables can make existing RLS worse or even induce initial bouts of RLS. Some of these triggers include:
- Stress and anxiety
- Vigorous exercise
- Certain medications
- Diabetes, kidney disease, or other conditions
- Iron, magnesium, or folic acid deficiency
Restless Arm Syndrome
RLS is not confined to the legs. Having restless arms or similar arm pains may be a symptom of RLS. 48.7% of patients with restless legs also report arm restlessness, especially with chronic RLS.
Restless Leg Syndrome Treatments
If you suspect you might have Restless Leg Syndrome, it’s important to speak with a doctor. Certain other conditions, such as kidney failure or diabetes, can induce Restless Leg Syndrome. Bouts of RLS also sometimes occur with people who are iron deficient. A doctor can check your blood iron levels, consult with you about any possible side effects of medication, and treat any underlying Restless Leg Syndrome causes.
There are also certain lifestyle changes you can take to help you sleep better. Some practical ideas include:
- Mild, Midday Exercise: Extreme exercise, especially if done a few hours before bed, can make RLS worse. However, studies show that steady aerobic exercise and lower body resistance training can drastically reduce RLS symptoms. Incorporating regular yoga and pranayama into your routine has also been shown to be effective at easing RLS.
- Stop Smoking: Tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine all worsen the effects of RLS. If you’re having trouble quitting, try to taper back the habit in the hours before bedtime, when they have the most impact on RLS symptoms. Then work backward to remove them from the rest of your day.
- Maintain Consistent Sleep Habits: Going to bed at the same time each day, keeping a quiet, dark space for sleep, and cutting out blue light before bed can all help ease bedtime bouts of RLS. See if you can create wind-down rituals, like reading a book, playing a quiet game, or meditating to help the mind and body relax before bed.
- Keep a Sleep Diary: Try writing a few lines each day about your sleep quality and see if you notice anything that may be affecting your symptoms. By doing so, you can keep track of any possible triggers.
- Take a Hot Bath Before Bed: Using a heating pad or taking a hot bath before bed can relax the leg muscles and bring some relief. Some people with RLS also suggest gently massaging any commonly affected areas with a soothing scent.
What triggers Restless Leg Syndrome? Causes of Restless Leg Syndrome can be diverse, from pregnancy to a genetic disorder to a side effect of medication or more. Check-in with a doctor if you suspect you have RLS, as some cases may be caused by underlying conditions. Severe cases of RLS can be challenging to navigate on your own, but once you get the all-clear, you can explore new habits that transform restless nights into restful ones.