What You Need To Know About Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) may sound like a minor inconvenience, but when you can’t even lie down long enough to fall asleep, or jump out of bed several times a night to stretch, the effect on your life can be major.

Restless legs are more common in women than men, and often occur during pregnancy. RLS in young adults is often attributed to growing pains or hyperactivity.

Restless leg symptoms

The symptoms of restless leg syndrome are often described by sufferers as “hard to describe.”

The way people describe RLS can vary, but it’s associated with the urge to move. Symptoms are worse when sedentary and relieved when walking around. Some may describe it as ‘creepy-crawly’ or an itching or tingling sensation deep within the legs.

Symptoms most often display when at rest, driving, relaxing in the evening and when trying to get to sleep.

Diagnosing RLS

There are two types of restless legs: primary and secondary. Primary, which runs in families, comes on for no reason but the cause of secondary RLS can often be found and treated.

RLS is considered a clinical diagnosis, or one that is usually made in the doctor’s office on the basis of a description of symptoms. However, tests are sometimes done in conjunction with a clinical evaluation to rule out other disorders and to find out if there is a treatable underlying cause. After a physical examination, your physician may order a blood test to rule out some common secondary causes of restless legs such as:

  • anemia (low iron)
  • thyroid issues
  • vitamin B12 deficiency
  • renal dysfunction or disease

While treating these issues doesn’t always cure RLS, testing for them is a logical first step in treatment.

Restless leg syndrome is also related to a separate disorder called periodic limb movement. Periodic limb movements are diagnosed by doing a sleep study, with leads put on the legs or other large muscle groups to detect movement. Sleep studies may also be done if doctors suspect there are other sleep issues such as sleep apnea.

Finding relief

Your physician will usually start with the simplest treatments. If blood tests indicate any factors that may be contributing to RLS symptoms, those will be addressed first. Low iron is most common and iron supplementation may help.

In addition, lifestyle changes may be suggested, such as cutting back on caffeine or alcohol, which can exacerbate symptoms. Common over-the-counter medications used to self-treat sleep issues–medications with “PM” in the name–can also cause RLS symptoms, so doctors recommend avoiding them. Light exercise, warm baths, heating pads and massages may help too.

If lifestyle changes don’t work, the next step is a class of medications called dopamine agonists. From there, more powerful medications may be prescribed.

5 Ways to alleviate restless leg symptoms

  1. Reduce caffeine and alcohol consumption.
  2. Don’t use over-the-counter sleep medications.
  3. Take a warm bath before bed.
  4. Apply heat.
  5. Massage your lower legs.