Restless legs syndrome is a neurological disorder that can be effectively treated and managed with a combination of healthy behaviors and medications.
Restless legs syndrome affects an estimated 7% to 10% of the United States population. This condition usually doesn’t progress to other serious illnesses and conditions but can be extremely bothersome when it starts interfering with your sleep, productivity, and overall well-being.
This week is Restless Legs Syndrome Week. Knowing more about what causes this common medical condition can help you determine whether it’s time to visit your doctor to receive an official diagnosis and treatment.
Continue reading to learn more about restless legs syndrome and about how to contact Lompoc Valley Medical Center if you need treatment for this condition.
What Is Restless Legs Syndrome?
Also known as Willis-Ekbom Disease, restless legs syndrome is a neurological disorder characterized by an uncontrollable urge to move one or both of your legs. The sensations produced by restless legs syndrome can feel like burning, tugging, and itching and usually occur when you’re sitting or lying down. Moving your legs can often help you experience temporary relief from these sensations.
Restless legs syndrome can affect males and females of all ages and often worsens gradually over time. Insomnia, sleep deprivation, and severe daytime fatigue are common sleep problems that may co-occur with restless legs syndrome, leading to worsened quality of life in those who suffer from this condition.
What Are Symptoms of Restless Legs Syndrome?
The primary symptom of restless legs syndrome is the uncontrollable urge to constantly move one or both legs. Sensations associated with this condition typically begin after you’ve been sitting or lying down for a period of time, such as while watching a movie or driving a car.
Symptoms can range from being mildly irritable to severely painful to the point they disrupt your daily activities. Sensations you may feel if you have restless legs syndrome include:
Symptoms often worsen slowly throughout the day and peak at nighttime. You may find temporary relief from these symptoms by jiggling your legs, rubbing your legs, pacing and walking around, bending your legs, or stretching. You may also twitch or kick your legs while sleeping.
What Causes Restless Legs Syndrome?
The direct cause of restless legs syndrome remains unknown. However, some researchers suspect this condition may be hereditary and runs in families, or that it may be caused by imbalances in a brain chemical called dopamine that plays a role in muscle control and movement.
Certain risk factors may increase your risk for developing restless legs syndrome. Risk factors include:
- Pregnancy, though symptoms typically go away after childbirth
- Nerve damage in the hands and legs known as peripheral neuropathy, typically caused by diabetes and alcohol use disorder
- Iron deficiency
- Kidney failure
- Spinal cord injuries, including spinal lesions and spinal block
- Coffee and nicotine use
- Using certain medications, including antipsychotics, antidepressants, and cold medicines
- Having a medical condition that causes a dopamine imbalance, including Parkinson’s disease, depression, and schizophrenia
How Is Restless Legs Syndrome Diagnosed?
Most doctors diagnose restless legs syndrome by talking to you about your symptoms and reviewing your medical history. At this time, there is no designated or definitive test for this neurological condition.
According to the National Institutes of Health, there are five basic criteria for clinically diagnosing restless legs syndrome. These criteria are:
- Having a strong, overwhelming need or urge to move the legs that is often associated with unusual, unpleasant, and uncomfortable sensations.
- Having an urge to move the legs that begins or worsens during periods of rest or inactivity.
- Having an urge to move the legs that begins or worsens in the evening.
- Moving the legs allows you to experience temporary, partial, or total relief from symptoms and sensations.
- The above four criteria are not being caused by any other medical or behavioral condition.
Some doctors may also perform a physical and/or neurological exam, as well as blood testing to rule out other medical conditions, including pregnancy and kidney failure. Some doctors may even refer you to a sleep specialist so you can undergo a sleep study. The purpose of a sleep study is to determine other potential causes of sleep disturbances that may be contributing to restless legs syndrome.
How Can Restless Legs Syndrome Be Treated?
Your doctor will develop a customized treatment plan for your restless legs syndrome based on its root cause. For example, if the underlying cause of your condition is being driven by anemia, your doctor will work with you to treat anemia to reduce your symptoms of restless legs syndrome.
Medications and lifestyle changes are common treatments for restless legs syndrome when there is no known underlying cause.
Medications typically used to treat restless legs syndrome include:
- Opioids, which reduce pain and produce relaxation in patients with severe symptoms who don’t respond well to other medications.
- Muscle relaxants, to relax your muscles and help you sleep better.
- Sleep medications, to treat sleep disturbances triggered by restless legs syndrome.
- Benzodiazepines, often used as a last-line treatment to reduce anxiety, muscle spasms, and insomnia. These medications may not relieve all symptoms of restless legs syndrome.
- Anticonvulsants, which may help reduce sensations including creeping, crawling, and nerve pain.
- Drugs that affect calcium channels.
- Drugs that increase your brain’s dopamine levels, particularly those used to treat Parkinson’s disease.
- Iron, which may help reduce symptoms in those with anemia.
Your doctor may have you try different types of medications until you find one that works best at relieving your symptoms. If you are prescribed habit-forming medications such as opioids or benzodiazepines, your doctor may only have you taking these drugs for a short period to avoid dependency.
Certain medications may eventually stop working to reduce your symptoms of restless legs syndrome or may end up worsening your symptoms. For instance, dopamine medications can become ineffective, cause your symptoms to begin earlier in the day, and may even trigger symptoms in your arms.
Antidepressants, antipsychotics, and some anti-nausea medications are found to worsen symptoms of restless legs syndrome. Contact your doctor right away if your medications are causing adverse effects such as these.
Most medications used to treat restless legs syndrome are not safe or approved for use during pregnancy. If you are pregnant, your doctor may recommend making a series of healthy lifestyle changes in place of using medications or may prescribe medications during your last trimester if your case is severe.
What Are Lifestyle Remedies for Restless Legs Syndrome?
Certain lifestyle and at-home remedies may help you find relief from symptoms of restless legs syndrome. In addition, your doctor may recommend practicing the following behaviors to improve your condition:
- Exercise regularly, as moderate exercise may reduce your symptoms.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
- Get plenty of quality sleep, as tiredness and fatigue may worsen your symptoms.
- Avoid consuming products high in caffeine including coffee, tea, and sodas, as caffeine may worsen symptoms.
- Avoid using alcohol and tobacco products.
- Take warm baths regularly, as warm baths may help relax your muscles.
- Massage your legs regularly to help relax your muscles.
- Alternate between using warm and cool packs, which may help reduce your symptoms and sensations.
- Try using a foot wrap called a restiffic, which is designed for people with restless legs syndrome. This type of wrap puts pressure on certain points on the bottom of your foot to reduce symptoms.
- Keep track of activities that cause or worsen your symptoms, and avoid those activities whenever possible.
- Start taking vitamin D supplements and spend more time in the sun, as many people with restless legs syndrome are found to be deficient in this essential vitamin.
- Work closely with your doctor to identify and treat underlying health conditions contributing to symptoms of restless legs syndrome.
- Manage your blood sugar levels if you have diabetes to reduce your risk of developing nerve damage that causes restless legs syndrome.
- Ask your doctor about new, emerging treatments for restless legs syndrome. For example, near-infrared spectroscopy is a relatively new, noninvasive treatment that improves blood circulation in the legs to reduce symptoms.
Can Restless Legs Syndrome Be Fully Cured?
At this time, there is no cure for restless legs syndrome, which usually becomes a lifelong condition. However, seeking treatment from your doctor and making healthy lifestyle changes can help you manage and reduce your symptoms. When left untreated and unaddressed, restless legs syndrome can lead to poor sleep, interfere with your daily activities, and greatly reduce your quality of life.
When It’s Time to See Your Doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible if you think you may have restless legs syndrome, especially if it interferes with your ability to enjoy life and be productive at work, school, or home. Your doctor can work with you to identify and treat any underlying conditions contributing to your symptoms and help you find a treatment that works best for you and your lifestyle.
Treating Restless Legs Syndrome at Lompoc Valley Medical Center
Lompoc Valley Medical Care offers a wide range of healthcare services and is home to a large team of medical providers who can diagnose and treat you for restless legs syndrome. Visit our provider page today to make an appointment and learn more about our many available healthcare services for you and your family.