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Health Information | 12/08/2021

Remedies for Restless Leg Syndrome

By  Christine Gaggin, NP
Restless leg syndrome (RLS), or Willis-Ekbom disease, is a sleep-related movement disorder that often causes an uncomfortable urge to move the legs. On average, 5-10 percent of people in the U.S. suffer from RLS.

Symptoms from RLS are most notable in the evening or when someone is lying down or attempting to rest. Since this is usually at nighttime, it can impact your ability to fall or stay asleep. Lack of sleep can negatively affect your quality of life, including your energy level and difficulty concentrating. It has also been associated with a higher risk of developing hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and mental health issues. For this reason, it’s important to communicate with your healthcare provider if you are experiencing these symptoms.

What causes RLS?

Currently, there is no singular cause of RLS. Studies have identified both central and peripheral nervous symptom abnormalities associated with the disorder. RLS is more common in women, but the frequency increases with any gender as people age.

The most common medical conditions associated with RLS include:

  • Iron deficiency
  • Poor kidney function
  • Pregnancy
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Neuropathy
  • Spinal cord issues
Additionally, some medications used to treat depression, allergies, or nausea may contribute to RLS. For this reason, it’s important to monitor any symptoms or side effects when starting new medications. Caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine can also exacerbate RLS symptoms and make it difficult to get restful sleep.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

The most common symptom of RLS is an uncontrollable urge to move your legs, mainly at bedtime. Many people describe these urges as deep throbbing, aching, itching, or pulling. Some may describe their legs as feeling “electric” or they may experience creeping and crawling. However, several other symptoms can also occur in those with RLS, including:

  • Twitching – some patients also experience leg twitching or kicking at night while they sleep.
  • Trouble sleeping – because RLS most commonly occurs at night, many patients experience difficulty falling or staying asleep.
  • Fatigue – sleep disruptions can cause short- and long-term fatigue, especially if RLS is not properly managed.
While there is no test or scan that can detect RLS, your provider will evaluate your symptoms to determine whether they are caused by RLS or another ailment. Typically, providers will look for your specific triggers, what causes relief, and the duration of your episodes.

Other tests and scans can rule out more significant health conditions, neurological conditions, or deficiencies. Sometimes, treating these underlying issues will help alleviate RLS symptoms.

Treatment for RLS

How your provider may choose to treat your RLS depends on the severity of your symptoms and their impact on your quality of life. Typically, minor cases of RLS are initially treated without medication. Providers usually recommend lifestyle changes that reduce stress and help with maintaining healthy sleep habits. Regular exercise, leg stretches, especially before bed, limiting caffeine and alcohol intake, meditation, warm baths, and other stress-relieving activities may lessen symptoms.

Additionally, RLS may be caused by low iron levels. If this is the case, your provider will check your iron levels with a blood test and likely recommend taking a supplement. It is important to speak with your provider before taking an iron supplement, as too much iron can cause serious health concerns.

In cases of severe RLS, your provider may choose to prescribe one of the following types of medications:

  • Alpha-2-delta calcium channel ligands- these can be especially helpful if RLS is associated with neuropathy, chronic pain, and insomnia.
  • Dopamine agonists – these can help control involuntary leg movements.
While these medications can be extremely effective at helping to manage RLS symptoms, they should be used in combination with stress-relieving techniques to ensure that you can address all potential root causes of your symptoms. This will also help improve your overall quality of life and keep you healthier.

RLS can be inconvenient and frustrating, but most people with the condition are able to manage their symptoms with small lifestyle changes. However, if you find that your symptoms are impacting your daily life with no signs of improvement, your Atrius Health provider can help you find a treatment plan that works best for you.

About The Author

Christine Gaggin, NP

Christine Gaggin, NP, joined Atrius Health in 2016 and is a primary care provider at our Harvard Vanguard Chestnut Hill/West Roxbury location. She received her degree from the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Christine’s clinical interests include lifestyle medicine and caring for a diverse population of patients.

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