Restless legs syndrome
What is restless legs syndrome?
Restless legs syndrome, also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, is a common condition of the nervous system that causes an overwhelming, irresistible urge to move the legs.
It can also cause an unpleasant crawling or creeping sensation in the feet, calves and thighs. The sensation is often worse in the evening or at night. Occasionally, the arms are affected too.
Restless leg syndrome is also associated with involuntary jerking of the legs and arms, known as periodic limb movements in sleep.
Some people have the symptoms occasionally, while others have them every day. They can vary from mild to severe. In severe cases, restless legs syndrome can be very distressing and disrupt a person's daily activities. Women are more likely to be effected than men.
What causes restless legs syndrome?
Most of the time there's no obvious cause of restless legs syndrome. This is known as idiopathic or primary restless legs syndrome, and it can run in families.
Some neurologists believe the symptoms of restless legs syndrome may have something to do with how the body handles a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is involved in controlling muscle movement and may be responsible for the involuntary leg movements associated with restless legs syndrome.
In some cases, it is caused by an underlying health condition, such as anaemia or kidney failure. There's also a link between restless legs syndrome and pregnancy. About 1 in 5 pregnant women will experience symptoms in the last three months of their pregnancy, although it's not clear exactly why this is. In such cases, restless legs syndrome usually disappears after the woman has given birth.
Mild cases of restless legs syndrome that have no underlying health condition may not require any treatment, other than making a few lifestyle changes, such as:
- adopting good sleep habits – for example, following a regular bedtime ritual, sleeping regular hours, and avoiding alcohol and caffeine late at night
- stopping smoking if you smoke
- exercising regularly during the daytime
If your symptoms are more severe, you may need medication to regulate the levels of dopamine and iron in your body.
The symptoms of restless legs syndrome will usually disappear if it's possible to diagnose and treat an underlying cause.
However, if the cause is unknown, the symptoms can sometimes get worse with time and severely affect the person's life. Restless legs syndrome isn't life threatening, but severe cases can severely disrupt sleep and trigger anxiety