Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)

By:    Published: May 10, 2012

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Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a condition marked by unpleasant sensations in a person’s legs. Though millions of people suffer from RLS, it is a condition that is often misunderstood. This article will explain more about restless legs syndrome along with how to prevent and treat it.

Definition

Restless legs syndrome is a neurological condition that affects the legs. When a person with RLS sits or lies down, they typically feel the urge to move their legs along with unpleasant sensations in those limbs. This often makes it difficult to sit still or to fall asleep.

In January 2011, the RLS Foundation Board of Directors voted to change the name of restless leg syndrome to Willis-Ekbom disease. The new terminology stems from the names of two individuals – Sir Thomas Willis and Karl-Axel Ekbom – who played critical roles in the discovery of RLS. Though the transition to the new name is not yet complete, advocates are working to make the name change more official and widespread in the coming years.

Symptoms

There are five defining symptoms of RLS, all of which must be present in order for a person to receive a diagnosis for the condition:

  1. A strong urge to move the legs that is accompanied by unpleasant sensations in the legs.
  2. The urge to move the legs and unpleasant sensations worsen when the person is at rest, particularly when sitting or lying down.
  3. The urge to move the legs and unpleasant sensations are relieved when the person moves by walking or stretching.
  4. The urge to move the legs and unpleasant sensations are worst at night when compared to during the day.
  5. The urge to move the legs and unpleasant sensations are not caused by another condition, such as leg swelling, leg cramps or arthritis.

Though the “unpleasant sensations” are a major part of the condition, this feeling is often difficult for people to describe in detail. Some ways that this feeling has been described include pulling, tingling, crawling, creeping, aching and burning. However, these feelings are not typically described as a numbness or muscle cramp, both of which would probably signal something other than RLS.

Causes and Risk Factors

Although more research needs to be done on this condition, researchers suspect that RLS is at least partially caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. The chemical in question is dopamine, which is responsible for sending messages from the brain to control muscle movements.

While the definite cause of RLS remains unknown, there are several factors that may increase an individual’s risk for developing the condition, including:

  • Genetics: RLS often runs in families, particularly in families which have individuals who first experienced RLS at an early age.
  • Sex: Women are more likely than men to develop RLS.
  • Age: Although children can get RLS, the symptoms of the condition tend to worsen with age.
  • Pregnancy: Hormonal changes during a pregnancy may trigger RLS or worsen the symptoms for someone who already suffers from the condition. Symptoms often first appear or worsen during the third trimester.
  • Peripheral neuropathy: People who have damage to the nerves in their hands and feet (often due to diabetes or alcoholism) may have an increased risk of developing RLS.
  • Iron deficiency: An iron deficiency can trigger or worsen RLS.

Treatment

A cure for RLS has not yet been discovered, but there are several treatment options available. Many people with the condition begin by trying natural treatments, such as:

  • Decreasing the use of alcohol, caffeine and tobacco.
  • Creating a regular, consistent sleep pattern.
  • Exercising regularly.
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet.
  • Massaging the legs.
  • Taking a hot bath.
  • Acupuncture.
  • Reducing stress.
  • Using heating pads or ice packs.

Doctors may also look at your medications to ensure that none of the prescriptions or over-the-counter drugs a person is currently taking could be causing RLS symptoms. Medications for high blood pressure, heart conditions, allergies, colds, nausea or depression could potentially make RLS symptoms worse.

Another way to treat RLS is to treat any underlying conditions which are causing the RLS symptoms. This could involve taking iron supplements for an iron deficiency or treating related conditions like peripheral neuropathy.

There are also several medication options for RLS, each of which should only be taken with approval from a doctor and after other treatments have been explored:

  • Dopaminergic agents: These drugs, which should initially be taken in small doses by those with RLS, are also used to treat Parkinson’s disease. Brand names include Requip, Mirapex and Restix.
  • Anticonvulsants: These are sometimes prescribed to those with painful daytime RLS. Brand names include Neurontin, Tegretol and Epitol.
  • Pain relievers: These are typically only prescribed for severe, chronic cases of RLS. Brand names include Percocet, Vicodin and OxyContin.

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