Restless Legs

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is an unusual condition of the nervous system, characterised by the compelling need to move the legs and usually experienced when trying to sleep. The strange sensation in the calves has been described as a type of cramp, soreness or a creeping, crawling feeling.

What is it?

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a condition in which your legs feel extremely uncomfortable while you're sitting or lying down. It usually makes you feel like getting up and moving around. When you do so, the unpleasant feeling of restless legs syndrome goes away.

Restless legs syndrome affects both sexes, can begin at any age and may worsen as you get older. Restless legs syndrome can disrupt sleep — leading to daytime drowsiness — and make traveling difficult.

A number of simple self-care steps and lifestyle changes may benefit you. Medications also help many people with restless legs syndrome.

What causes it?

In many cases, no known cause for restless legs syndrome exists. Researchers suspect the condition may be due to an imbalance of the brain chemical dopamine. This chemical sends messages to control muscle movement.

Restless legs syndrome runs in families in up to half of people with RLS, especially if the condition started at an early age. Researchers have identified sites on the chromosomes where genes for RLS may be present.

Stress tends to worsen the symptoms of RLS. Pregnancy or hormonal changes may temporarily worsen RLS signs and symptoms. Some women experience RLS for the first time during pregnancy, especially during their last trimester. However, for most of these women, signs and symptoms usually disappear about a month after delivery.

What are the symptoms?

People typically describe the unpleasant sensations of restless legs syndrome as “deep-seated, creeping, crawling, jittery, tingling, burning or aching” feelings in their calves, thighs, feet or arms. Sometimes the sensations seem to defy description. People usually don't describe the condition as a muscle cramp or numbness. Common characteristics of the signs and symptoms include:

  • Origination during inactivity.
  • Relief by movement.
  • Worsening of symptoms in the evening.
  • Nighttime leg twitching.

Are there any natural therapies?

Sometimes, treating an underlying condition such as iron deficiency or peripheral neuropathy greatly relieves symptoms of RLS. Correcting the iron deficiency may involve taking iron supplements. However, take iron supplements only under medical supervision and after your doctor has checked your blood iron level.

If you have restless legs syndrome without any associated condition, treatment focuses on lifestyle changes and medications. Several prescription medications, most of which were developed to treat other diseases, are available to reduce the restlessness in your legs.

What else can I do?

  • Try baths and massages.
  • Apply warm or cool packs.
  • Try relaxation techniques, such as meditation or yoga.
  • Establish good sleep hygiene.
  • Exercise.
  • Avoid caffeine.
  • Cut back on alcohol and tobacco.

Did you know?

RLS can make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep. People with RLS often don’t get enough sleep and may feel tired and sleepy during the day. This can make it difficult to: concentrate, making it harder to learn and remember things, work, carry out other usual daily activities and take part in family and social activities.