Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS), also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, is a common condition affecting 1 in 10 of us. It is a neurological disorder characterized by an irresistible urge to move the limbs accompanied by uncomfortable sensation. It can cause an unpleasant crawling or creeping sensation in the feet, calves and thighs. The sensation may be daily or come in episodes but is often worse in the evening or at night. Occasionally, the arms are affected too.
The mechanism of RLS is not fully understood but appears to be caused by abnormal signalling in the brain by a particular neurotransmitter called Dopamine. Dopamine is involved in controlling muscle movement and may be responsible for the involuntary leg movements associated with restless legs syndrome. In RLS the Dopamine Receptors become abnormal and do not work well, and this results in more and more Dopamine being produced to achieve the same signal. In the majority of cases, there's no obvious cause and this is known as idiopathic or primary RLS, which can run in families. In some cases RLS is secondary to another underlying health condition. These include Iron deficiency anaemia, kidney failure, or pregnancy.
Unfortunately, there is no specific test currently available to confirm the diagnosis of RLS. Blood tests to measure Iron and assess function of the kidneys can identify secondary RLS, and in these cases the symptoms of RLS will usually disappear if the underlying cause is treated. However, in primary RLS, where the cause is unknown, the symptoms can sometimes get worse with time and severely disrupt sleep causing anxiety and depression. Medical treatment for this condition includes advice on sleep hygiene, quitting smoking, exercise and drug therapy. Often these interventions are still ineffective and there are side effects attached to these drugs, including nausea, drowsiness, headaches, hallucinations, swelling of feet and ankles, and loss of balance. In this instance other treatment options can be considered….
The National Institute of Clinical Excellence advises that massage can be helpful. Acupuncture can also be an effective treatment. and should be considered if other treatments have been tried without success.
If you suffer from RLS the charity Restless Leg Syndrome UK provides information and support for people affected by restless legs syndrome, and may be able to put you in touch with other people in your area affected by the condition.